A grand tour of nanotechnology at Nokia Research Center, Cambridge

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A grand tour of nanotechnology at Nokia Research Center, Cambridge
We've all seen what a bumpy ride Nokia's had over the last few months -- disappointing profits, the departure of a couple of old friends, and the slight delay of the forthcoming N8. Despite all that, Espoo seems to have at least one stronghold that remained unshaken throughout the storm: its research center in Cambridge, UK. Yep, we're talking about the magical place where Nokia and University of Cambridge co-develop the core technologies for the futuristic Morph concept. Actually, "futuristic" might be too strong a word here, as we were fortunate enough to see some of Nokia's latest research at the heart of Morph -- namely flexible circuitry and nanowire sensing -- demonstrated live yesterday. Curious as to how well the demos went? Then read on -- you know you want to.%Gallery-103427%

Just to get things started, here's a video clip of our actual tour around Nokia's Cambridge site, followed by further explanation for each demo:

Nanowire sensing
The first demo we saw could be best described as an electronic nose -- it utilizes a single silicon nanowire (of less than 20nm in diameter) to identify certain types of solvent vapor. How is this possible, you ask? Well, turns out the nanowire can exhibit specific electrical behaviors when exposed to certain chemicals, therefore by building a large database of various chemicals and their corresponding current measured across the nanowire, the nose kit will eventually be able to simply look up a pattern in order to identify an unknown substance. The long-term goal with this project is to let mobile phones detect food allergens or even viruses, but right now Nokia requires a fabrication process that can etch or deposit arrays of such nanowires onto one base, in order to boost sensitivity and accuracy.

Stretchable electronic skin
For the second demo, we popped by Cambridge University's Nanoscience Center for a joint-project between Nokia and Cambridge. The stars of the show were several thin three-by-three capacitive button pads, which seemed pretty ordinary until we picked them up and realized we could torture them as if they were rubber bands. Best of all, those pads were actually functional circuit boards as well, and their 50nm-thick evaporated gold film would remain conductive even if you were to roll them, squeeze them, or stretch them. Speaking of which, Nokia's rigorous tests showed that this electronic skin can be stretched up to 20 percent longer and still remain intact and in shape; most other substrates only go up to one percent before breaking. Obviously, the outcome of this project will literally form the backbone of Morph, if it ever does materialize as a product; otherwise, we'll probably see this technology applied onto clothing gear or some wearable electronics.

Electrostatic tactile surface
OK, our final demo here has little to do with nanotechnology, but just bear with us. What we're looking at is its electrostatic tactile surface technology, which provides haptic feedback by means of electrovibration, i.e. tingling your finger with a small alternating current, courtesy of a special screen overlay. We were told that this feature should be more energy-efficient than conventional motor vibration, but its real benefit is that one could induce variable friction -- defined by the vibration frequency -- on your finger as you swipe across certain elements in a picture or an interface. For instance, a developer could map different friction settings to reflect the texture of certain objects in a picture; or it could be as simple as adding a bump around icons. Given a high enough resolution and size for the touchscreen overlay, it might one day be possible to implement a Braille interface for the blind using this technology. That said, we did notice some discomfort after prolonged usage -- our index finger went slightly numb if we kept it on the overlay for too long, but in an ideal situation, the voltage could be customized by the user. Either way, it'll be interesting to see what the other people will think in Nokia's forthcoming user test groups.

Flexible printed supercaps
We didn't get to see these nanomaterial-laden, sub 1mm-thick supercapacitors in action, but they're no less essential than the aforementioned nanotechnologies. The most obvious application here is for supplying a burst of current to the camera flash on highly flexible devices, which would struggle to house the current 3 to 4mm-thick and less dense supercaps.


It sure is nice to see Nokia actually realize some of Morph's core features, if not the concept phone itself. In the future, the Cambridge center is looking into developing even crazier technologies like materials that can self-assemble into complex structures, as well as integrating quantum cryptography into mobile devices. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves -- we're still not certain when the first batch of Morph's features will trickle into consumers' hands, and not even the researchers were willing to give us a time frame. Ah well, a fine pot of tea does take time to brew, plus we're kinda getting used to the whole waiting game here, anyway.
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