Small Wonders

Aug 25 2008, 01:12 IST
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SummaryThink of a futuristic war scenario where soldiers are firing smart weapons from the confines of their command centres. Weapons that are capable of intercepting and destroying virtually all enemy attack weapons and yet, they are fired from unmanned vehicles thereby minimising all possibilities of human casualties.

Think of a futuristic war scenario where soldiers are firing smart weapons from the confines of their command centres. Weapons that are capable of intercepting and destroying virtually all enemy attack weapons and yet, they are fired from unmanned vehicles thereby minimising all possibilities of human casualties.

This is the promise that nanotechnology has in store for the global defence industry, which is pumping billions of dollars in nanotech research, examining how nano science can improve defence capabilities. Potential benefits of nanotechnology in the defence industry include stronger, lighter and less-expensive materials and enhanced protection for military personnel.

Recognising the research and development (R&D) expertise of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, US aircraft maker Lockheed Martin has decided to partner it for a $3,00,000 project of collaborative research in bio- and nano-technology. Research will be carried out in the fields of nano-technology-enabled biological sensors, biodegradable material for medical treatment and bio-filters for pollution detection.

“We have signed an agreement with IIT Delhi for a collaborative project over a period of one year,” says Ray O Johnson, senior vice-president and chief technology officer of Lockheed Martin. Interestingly, this is the first such collaboration for Lockheed Martin beyond the US and Europe. “After the successful completion of the project, we may have some follow up projects,” he adds.

The objectives of the research partnership include developing domain expertise in the nano-biological technologies for application to Lockheed Martin products and services. Eight professors from four departments of the institute and up to five experts from Lockheed will work together at IIT Delhi on various projects. The joint research is also intended to develop capabilities in modelling and simulation, virtual experimentation and conceptual designing of nano-biological systems.

When one thinks of nanotechnology specific to the defence industry, then the visions of lightweight materials many times stronger than steel seem large. While the industry is bullish on the potential benefits from the advances in nanotechnology, analysts caution that the transition of the technology into the defence industry will be slower than in commercial businesses due to several challenges. Some of these include component cost, reliability, packaging, reproducibility, manufacturing, testing, radiation effects, etc.

Besides the defence industry, nanosensors and nano-enabled sensors have applications in many industries. These include transportation, communications, building and facilities, and pharmaceuticals. As the research progresses, analysts see a convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and IT.

“Nanotechnology promises a fundamental improvement in the way we build our products. We believe that nanotechnology will allow us to insert more capability into a smaller space with lower weight and potentially lower cost, and at the same time, achieve greater reliability,” says a Lockheed Martin official. The company has identified four emerging areas of nanotechnology that it feels have the largest near-term payoff for its products: nano-structures, nano-sensors, nano-energy sources, and nano-electronics.

With lighter, stronger nano-structured materials, aircraft makers feel they will be able to build longer range aircraft and longer range, more maneuverable missiles for extended range missions. “New coatings will provide high performance low observables for enhanced stealth of our aircraft and missiles, making it more difficult for our systems to be detected by enemy forces. Smaller components such as miniaturised electronics will allow increased redundancy in systems that will result in greater reliability,” says the official.

According to an analyst, sensor technology is important in the design, manufacturing, maintenance, and function of defence products. New sensors will utilise nano science to detect chemical and biological agents and explosives at levels significantly lower than previously attained. Reduced sensor weight and volume will allow greater real-time prognostic health monitoring of aircraft and spacecraft structure systems.

New sensor materials also offer the potential for reduced cooling needs, such as infrared sensors. Most infrared sensors, often used to ‘see in the dark’, operate at very cold or cryogenic temperatures. With reduced cooling requirements, these sensors will be able to operate in more mission scenarios than their highly cooled counterparts, offering the potential for improved or extended reconnaissance missions.

The trend towards the small began with the miniaturisation of macro techniques, which led to the now well-established field of microtechnology. We are now beginning to see nano-scale materials and devices being integrated into real-world systems, and the future looks very bright indeed for technology on a tiny scale.

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