The Nanotechnology Series (Part 1 of 4): The Next Big Thing in IoT is Actually Really Small




First there was the Internet of Things (IoT) and the connected devices and sensors which are rapidly infiltrating all aspects of our lives personally and professionally. The technologies and advances in this area are really amazing – but hold on. It’s time to meet the Internet of Nano Things (IoNT), which is the overall same concept as the IoT, but at a really, really small scale – as in 1/80,000 of a hair follicle small.

Yes, that’s the size of a single nanometer – or, to give you another perspective, there are 25,400,000 nanometers in an inch, and a strand of human DNA is about 2.5 nanometers in diameter.

So what is nanotechnology all about – and what is the IoNT?

You may already be familiar with nanotechnology, but here’s a brief overview, just in case. Nano.gov defines nanotechnology as science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale – which is anywhere between one and 100 nanometers. While some sources say nanomaterials were used early in our civilization, most people credit physicist Richard Feynman for bringing this concept to light when in 1959 he envisioned manipulating and controlling individual atoms and molecules. In 1974, Professor Norio Taniguchi first coined the term nanotechnology. A few years later, in 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented a scanning tunneling microscope that could see surfaces at the atomic level and true experimentation at the nano level began.

Fast forward to 2010, eleven years after the term “Internet of Things” was first introduced. Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology used the Internet of Nano Things to describe a new networking paradigm, or “the interconnection of nanoscale devices with classical networks and ultimately the Internet.”

A report from 2013, “Realizing the Internet of Nano Things: Challenges, Solutions, and Applications,” discussed how embedding nanosensors in objects and devices would add a new dimension to the IoT. The researchers behind the report described how miniature sensors that are interconnected through nanonetworks could potentially “obtain fine-grained data within objects and from hard-to-access areas.” They cited examples such as on-body nanosensors for capturing electrocardiagraphic and other vital signals, or environmental ones that could collect data on pathogens and allergens. Combining these two could, according to the researchers, make it easier to more accurately diagnose and monitor a patient’s condition.

Fast forward again to 2016, and now “Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings” was named one of the top ten “technological innovations” of the year by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies. According to the WEF, “Scientists are shrinking sensors from millimeters or microns in size to nanometer scale, small enough to circulate within living bodies and to mix directly into construction materials.” The organization says this is “the first crucial step toward an Internet of Nano Things that could take medicine, energy efficiency, and many other sectors to a whole new dimension.”

In a related article in Scientific American, author Javier Garcia-Martinez notes that “Because they are so small, nanosensors can collect information from millions of different points. External devices can then integrate the data to generate incredibly detailed maps showing the slightest changes in light, vibration, electrical currents, magnetic fields, chemical concentrations and other environmental conditions.”

The research firm Technavio says in its 2016 Global Internet of Nano Things Market (2016-2020) report that “the global IoNT market is still in its nascent stage.” Technavio research analysts expect the market to grow appreciably in the next few years, with a 24% increase by 2020. The firm anticipates that there will be significant R&D investments in healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and energy and utilities. Healthcare is particularly promising according to Technavio, and so far it’s captured 40% of the market share.

According to the WEF report mentioned above, the IoT market still faces many challenges. For instance, WEF mentions that one “technical hurdle is to integrate all the components needed for a self-powered nanodevice to detect a change and transmit a signal to the web.” Like the IoT, privacy and safety are concerns too, especially with devices embedded in the body.

To get a deeper perspective of where the IoNT is today, Product Lifecycle Report talked with three university professors who are using nanotechnology and nanoscale materials in their research. As you’ll see in this four-part series, some are addressing WEF’s technological hurdle for a self-powered nanodevice in a product that is almost ready to go to market, while others are still in a pure academic research phase. Here’s a quick summary of the research:
  • Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have developed self-powering nanotechnology devices that harvest energy from their environment, with commercial non-medical products potentially available within a couple of years. 
  • University of Massachusetts Lowell researchers are working on the manufacturing of nanoproducts for EMI shielding, cloaking, antimicrobial, superhydrophic, and icephobic applications. They have already worked with government agencies and private sector companies to bring various applications to market. 
  • Meanwhile, at Northeastern University in Boston, researchers are working on fluorescent nanosensors for analyte detection. This research could someday soon make personalized medicine a reality.

Don’t forget to check back to learn more about the IoNT in the coming weeks.