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issue: February 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Nanotech in the Refrigerator?


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Nanotechnology is an emerging discipline that uses a new set of tools such as atomic force microscopes and nanoimprint lithography to engineer materials and devices with features that are less than 100 nm in size.

About the Author

Lawrence Gasman is principal analyst at NanoMarkets LC in Glen Allen, Virginia, U.S. He also serves on the Editorial Board of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, a leading think tank focused on nanotechnology.

At that level, it is possible to exploit both quantum and surface effects not available to micro-engineers.

As research escalates, this promising technology is opening doors to several market opportunities. I believe nanotechnology will positively impact both the energy efficiency and intelligence of appliances.

The importance of energy efficiency for appliances needs no further comment. It seems likely that nanocomposites will provide much better insulation than anything we can come up with today, while other nano-engineered materials promise more efficient motors for refrigerators, dishwashers and dryers. Meanwhile, ultra-high brightness LEDs can provide more energy-efficient lighting for inside appliances.

Creating new materials is one of the least futuristic aspects of nanotech. A little further off is the ability of nanotech to provide a solar backup to the standard grid electricity. Several firms are working on developing a new generation of nano-engineered solar panels that are low cost and can be laminated onto the outside of major appliances. Unlike conventional solar panels, the materials from which these panels will be made enable photovoltaic (PV) cells to be recharged by indoor light.

While such panels may act as an auxiliary power source, the efficiency of the first generation of nano-engineered PV is quite low. But the basic technology should be available by 2006, so it would be no surprise to see solar power in the kitchen a year or so later.

Another way in which nanotechnology will boost efficiency will be through better handling of water and other liquids. The budding area of nanofluidics, for example, will enable less water to be used in dishwashers and will ensure that the water reaches exactly the right spot for it to do its most effective work.

Finally, tiny nano-engineered sensors should eventually be cost-efficient enough to be widely deployed in appliances to turn the various subsystems on and off to optimize power use. This, however, is an application for nanotechnology that lies further off than some of the others outlined here. Presently, nanosensor development is more oriented toward medical and defense applications than consumer applications.

Nanotech also promises to contribute to the automated kitchen. It is important, however, to distinguish between what nanotechnology can do for appliances and what customers are going to want. The history of consumer electronics is littered with well meaning uses of technology that were more irritating than helpful. A car that can talk is a pretty good example.

I can imagine two practical ways nanotechnology might impact appliances-although only the market will ultimately reveal consumer acceptance. One way will be by making the appliance easier to use. The other is by providing more useful information to the user.

"Easier to use" does not mean taking functionality with which the appliance owner is already familiar and translating it into another modality: An oven that tells you in its own "voice" that it is at maximum bake temperature rather than show the same thing on the conventional small display is not a major leap forward. However, an oven that can automate cooking in a way that prepares food well with relatively little time or effort does seem to be something worth having.

These new capabilities will require appliances to have more computer memory. Nanotechnology is enabling a variety of non-volatile, but high-capacity computer memories that might serve the appliance industry well in a few years. A new generation of nanometallic inks will allow circuitry to be printed directly on the appliance, creating new capabilities at a relatively modest cost. Both memory and processing can be added in this way. While this technology is relatively near at hand, currently it is mostly targeted toward display backplanes and radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs).

RFIDs are also relevant to the final way nanotech will impact the appliance industry-smart packaging. This is packaging that contains very low-cost circuitry that can provide customers with information such as the expiration dates of food and drugs. Although this information is primarily intended to be read directly by the customer, it is possible that it could be read by a refrigerator, which could then indicate to the consumer that certain foods are not fit for consumption. Interactions between the fridge and the packaging might also enable the appliance to create a shopping list of regularly used food items that have been fully consumed.

Would the consumer actually welcome this kind of capability? Difficult to say with certainty. However, what is not difficult to say with certainty is that in about 5 years, the nano-enabled appliance will be sitting in the showroom of your local retailer.

If you would like to reach Gasman, please e-mail:
editor@appliance.com.

 

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