Menu
Slideshow

In Pictures: 10 really small devices that could change the world

From the world's tiniest semiconductor laser to a bee-sized flying robot, these minuscule devices -- many of which cannot be seen by a human eye -- are changing our world.

  • Now you see it -- or you don't The old adage that good things come in small packages has never been truer -- and they can be smaller than a smartphone or a 7-in. tablet. A lot smaller. And while some of the devices shown here are just tiny enough to be impressive, others can't even be seen with the human eye. Thanks to the latest advances in nanotechnology, items even in the microscopic world can have a huge impact on our lives. From a diagnostic computer that can be implanted into the eye of a glaucoma patient to memory circuits made from only a dozen atoms, scientists have been doing a lot with a little. It all shows that the next big thing just might be very, very small.

  • Print your own batteries Tired of shelling out money for batteries? If researchers at Harvard and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have their way you might someday be printing your own. Physicists have created lithium-ion batteries the size of a grain of salt with a 3D printer that sprays conductive inks onto a glass substrate with gold wires. The battery's anode and cathode are composed of interlaced walls of lithium titanate and lithium iron phosphate that are 60 microns wide, barely the thickness of a human hair. These tiny batteries could one day power anything from mobile phones to smart prosthetic implants.

  • A movie with a very small cast IBM's latest video release, A Boy And His Atom, may lack big-name stars, look crude and have a forgettable story line, but it's a must-see nonetheless. The 242-frame stop-action animated movie is created by scientists who are manipulating actual carbon monoxide molecules under one-million-times magnification. If you listen carefully to the video you can almost hear the scratching of the molecules as they are dragged across a copper sheet. Filmed at IBM's Almaden Research Lab in San Jose using two scanning tunneling microscopes, techniques like this might one day yield electronic circuits with just a few atoms rather than millions.

  • Tiny tunes It may be one of the biggest "small things" here, but at 0.75 in. on a side and weighing less an ounce, theKube media player makes an iPod Nano look positively huge. Inside is a circuit board the size of a fingernail and a 6-hour lithium polymer battery. It can play music in all the popular audio formats from a microSD card (a 2GB card is included). There are controls for play and pause, moving tracks forward or back, and adjusting the volume. Available in pink, black, light green, yellow and white, theKube costs $34.

  • Light bright Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin claim to have bragging rights for the smallest semiconductor laser around. At only 30 nanometers wide, the laser is the right size for integrating onto a computer or communications chip. The laser produces an intense green light by exciting atoms inside a tiny pipe that's filled with indium gallium nitride. Nano-lasers like this can be used to convert electronic signals to optical pulses, speeding up how quickly circuits transfer data.

  • Thanks for the micro-memories Compared to solid state flash storage, the hard drive may seem like yesterday's tech. However, tomorrow's drives could squeeze in 200 times more data. Scientists at the German Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL) have created a magnetic storage unit that occupies 4 x 16 nanometers on the disc. Each of its tooth-like structures is composed of 12 iron atoms, yet can store a single bit of data; the whole structure uses 96 atoms to hold a full byte. This could lead to 100-terabyte drives, but don't hold your breath -- currently, the structure has to remain below -450 degrees Fahrenheit to be stable.

  • The eyes have it Think your smartphone is small enough? David Wentzloff has been making tiny computers for years at the University of Michigan, but his latest project is a self-contained computing device that is about 1 cubic millimeter wide. Roughly the size of a pinhead, this nano-computer has two processors, a camera and a pressure sensor as well as a wireless transmitter and antenna. The whole thing is powered by a tiny solar cell and battery pack. It's been designed and built to be implanted into the eyes of glaucoma patients to measure and transmit their ocular pressure every 15 minutes.

  • Digital buzz The next time you're harassed by a bee, look closer. It just might be Mobee, a robotic insect, that's spying on you. Developed at the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, the Mobee (from "Monolithic Bee") can buzz around performing tasks such as surveillance -- or even pollinizing plants. Harvard's mechanical bee weighs about as much as a real one (roughly one-tenth of a gram), is about the size of a quarter and, like a real insect, has a pair of fluttering wings, a thorax and stabilizing halteres (small structures which operate like gyroscopes). Unlike an insect, Mobee also has a battery, microprocessor, sensors, transmitter and antennas, and is made from 18 layers of different materials that assemble like a child's pop-up book.

  • A tiny capacitor with a large capacity Whether it's a TV, computer or smartphone, one thing is guaranteed: Most of today's electronics devices have dozens, if not hundreds, of capacitors that store and release electrical energy. Engineers at Japan's Murata Manufacturing Co. have created one of the smallest discrete capacitors around. Made of monolithic ceramic, the tiny capacitor measures .005 x .005 x .01 in., smaller than a pencil point and one-quarter smaller than the previous record for capacitor size. No bigger than a pollen grain, the micro-capacitor not only takes up less space and is lighter than previous efforts, but consumes less power; it should be available later this year.

  • A revolutionary size John Hancock's signature stands tall on the Declaration of Independence, but in the miniature copy made at Technion's Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute in Israel, it is too small to be seen with the naked eye. That's because Technion copied the entire founding document of the United States (alongside Israel's own Declaration of Independence) on a chip that's just .04 square millimeters. About the size of a dust mite, this is a faithful copy that Technion scientists engraved 20 nanometers deep into a gold-plated surface by shooting a focused beam of gallium ions. It was given to President Obama this spring.

  • If you think it's difficult finding your way on a small smartphone map, it could be worse: IBM scientists have created a nano-scale 3D map that's only 11 x 22 microns, or less than half the thickness of a human hair. On this map, Mt. Everest is only 70 nanometers tall compared to more than 29,000 feet in real life. Scientists used a heated 500-nanometer silicon tip to etch the relief map into the polymer surface. It was recently recognized by the Guinness World Records as the smallest 3D map created.

Show Comments