By Kyle James
Small Times Correspondent

HANNOVER, Germany, April 19, 2002 — Any visitor taking a stroll around the microtechnology hall at the Hannover Fair this past week would have been bombarded with a lot of two-dollar words like micromachining, biochips, microfluidics or extended UV high beam.

That’s fine for the specialists and industry people, or those with a particular interest in high-tech. But it’s Greek to most and this impenetrable vocabulary jungle is part of the reason the nano and MEMS worlds remain strange and exotic to many. On the other hand, windows, cars, coat hangers and CDs are not so unfamiliar. And the week at Hannover has shown, these older products and industries are going through something of a small tech revolution.

Increasing numbers of industries are beginning to realize that small tech has the potential to improve traditional products.

Glass is about as traditional as they come. But glass is rarely just glass anymore. If it is part of an Audi A4 series of automobile, for example, it has been treated with thin film technology so that it shields against the sun’s UV rays. The speedometer is always easy to read thanks to an anti-reflective coating applied to the glass in front of the instrument panel.

At the Institute for New Materials (INM) in Saarbrucken, Germany, they have gone even further. Their windows, made of two conductive glass substrates surrounding 200 nanometer-thick layers of tungsten oxide and cesium titanium oxide, will slowly turn dark blue when a switch is thrown — creating an alternative to shades and blinds. INM has also used nanomaterials to create an ultrahard lacquer that can be applied over automobile paint, making it extremely scratch resistant.

It’s another case of small tech migrating into people’s everyday lives — in this case, preventing some malcontent from leaving a mark after keying your car.

Small tech is a value-added industry. It enhances the functionality and performance of products and makes them more competitive. Take today’s automobiles, for example. Some of them are virtual computers on wheels, loaded with miniature electronics components that can do everything from see in the dark with infrared sensors to access the Internet.

Industry is not ignorant to the added value provided by small tech and is increasingly going to R&D companies with established products that it wants made better.

“We adapt our research to existing materials,” said Carsten Becker-Willinger of INM. “Customers come in with products they already make and we figure out how to improve them with nanotechnology.”

He said his company gets at least 1,000 contacts a year from industries looking for ways to add features to a product — for example, wooden doors that don’t burn, graffiti-proof exterior wall coatings and scratch-resistant surfaces for bathrooms and kitchens.

These thin films, or coatings that have been engineered at the atomic level, are one of the small technologies that figure most prominently in the many people’s daily lives, though few know it. Automobile glass commonly features coatings that have anti-fogging properties. CDs are coated with a thin film of silicon dioxide (SiO2) that protects them from the oil on a person’s fingers but does not disturb playback. Small batteries for watches and hearing aids can get ever smaller thanks to the stacking of thin films inside them that interact to deliver the needed voltage.

The main industries driving the MEMS march are telecommunications, automotive, medical, household appliances and kitchen and bathroom suppliers, according to Anja Nieselt-Achilles of PhotonicNet. She said small tech applies to the whole family. Kids will go for the new laser technology that puts more info on CDs. Mom will appreciate the new nanotreated textiles that repel dirt and stains. Dad will find the reactive cruise control in the car to his liking. And grandma will be glad the new bathroom floor tiles have been a thin film coating that keeps her from slipping in the tub.

Carlos Yahya-Vargas of PHS MEMS, a French company that produces switches for telecommunications applications, said MEMS’ introduction into traditional products is in full swing and looks to be going nowhere but up. He said that while today thin films may coat windows and sensors lie hidden in automobiles, tomorrow small tech will be common in every aspect of life, from clothing to coat hangers, bathroom tiles to shopping carts.

“And it will all be transparent. People won‘t even know it’s there,” he said. “They‘ll just see an improvement in their quality of life and they’ll be asking for more and more.”

More news from Hannover Fair 2002
Lasers make the cut as small tech shrinks
Solutions come in small packages for German firm with new process
Microtechnology road maps point in different directions


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