Moving Past Silicon, Biometric Passwords, and Molecular Delivery Trucks


This week we’re back to weird and wonderful innovations in health, nanotechnology and computing.

First carbon nanotube processor built

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are a relatively new synthetic form of carbon. They are cylindrical structures which can do all sorts of things – they have high tensile strength, useful electrical properties and can be used to store hydrogen. They have long been suggested as the logical successor for silicon-based electronics, but a working nanocarbon processor has never been demonstrated until now. Yesterday, however, a research team reported that they have built a working CNT processor. 

So why the fuss? While silicon processors have advanced greatly in the last decades, they are reaching an impasse due to heat waste. Because the transistors that make processors function have become so crammed together on a processor chip, the chips give off a huge amount of heat. Considering that processors shouldn’t ever really get about 90°C, you can see how that would be a limiting factor. CNTs, on the other hand, are so small and thin that they can be switched on and off with almost no heat loss. And considering that CNTs can be made by recycling plastic bags, this may actually be cheaper than making silicon processors. Soon, we’ll be able to choose between CNT and diamond processor chips. I guess Silicon Valley will need renaming.

Using a heartbeat to protect your implant

Having someone hack your implant is not exactly an everyday concern. Not yet, anyway. But modern implanted medical devices such as pacemakers and insulin pumps are WiFi controlled, and  can definitely be hacked in theory. I think we’ll call this #futurefirstworldproblems.

Even though it sounds futuristic, researchers are thinking about it right now. A team at Rice University has developed a system that uses a medical practitioners heartbeat as a kind of password to access implanted devices. The practitioner will have their heartbeat recorded externally and beamed to the implant, which will then compare it to the same heartbeat signal from the practitioner touching the person with the implant. The device will remain locked unless the two signals are the same.

I don’t think that malicious pranksters are plotting to disrupt their grandfather’s pacemaker as we speak. But implanted devices are becoming more and more prevalent. In a hundred years, when every human on the planet will have an implant of some kind, you can be sure that this will have been the start of an entire industry of implant privacy and security. Although perhaps by that stage, we will be able to access these implants straight from from our minds, and use our unique brain waves as a password.

Drug delivery nanorobots

Nanobots, tiny medical devices which live in our blood and deliver medicine when we need it, have been a science fiction staple for years. Needless to say, we are still a long way away from this becoming a reality, even for the 1%. But researchers are making steps in the right direction. Chinese researchers have built nanoscale magnetic cages which are guided by electromagnetic fields to deliver drugs to specific areas in the body. The researchers called them the delivery trucks of targeted medicine – they are larger than previous efforts, and therefore able to carry larger loads. Another use would be to carry cells to specific locations, which would be useful for growing functional organs in the lab.

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