on November 14th, 2007

Dear Colleagues

Thanks for the inevitably bulging mail bag of responses to my previous newsletters. Some very thoughtful engineers. And as per the suggestions, I am trying to add more engineering oriented musings. Three items today:

1. Amazing collection of free engineering software

I am always amazed by the incredible collection of engineering software programs available for free; sometimes as a result of (expensive) government sponsored research or genuinely altruistic engineers out there. We have been working on getting a list together and putting it all onto CD. If you have seen any useful programs which we can add, please email me by returning this message with your list of software programs and we will add this to the list. We will make this available on a complimentary CD or for download in early December as a Festive Season gift.

2. E-learning survey and paper

I have almost completed a short but readable paper summarising the main issues from the over 2500 responses from you guys on the e-learning survey for which I am very grateful. I will definitely get this out in the next two weeks. Some very interesting results on engineering training and skills shortages throughout the world.

3. Why nanotechnology is important to engineers

I always scratch my head when I hear about nanotechnology, of which I freely admit I know very little. Something tiny and presumably irrelevant. Tiny perhaps, but definitely going to make a massive impact on our lives over the next decade. Hence worth looking into. A nanometer (nm) is one billionth  of a meter. A line of ten hydrogen atoms is 1 nm; whereas a human blood cell is 2,000 to 2,500 nm long. This technology can manipulate both matter and life at their most basic levels and lead to enormous breakthroughs. Developments in the field are accelerating with billions of dollars being spent on research in the area. It is a highly multidisciplinary field combining aspects of engineering, physics, chemistry, biology and IT; supporting my ongoing thesis of the need for all engineers to multi skill. Some pundits reckon it will have as great an impact on our lives as electricity, the car and computers combined. There have been some initial (perhaps trivial) examples of nanotechnology in terms of stain resistant clothing, superdurable bowling balls and transparent sunscreens. 

One of the first notable successes in nanotechnology has been in manipulating the magnetic and electrical properties of atoms to store vast amounts of data, making iPods and other storage devices possible. Dr Fert and Dr Grunberg discovered even smaller and denser types of memory storage using spintronics (for which they received Nobel prizes)where the data is stored by manipulating the spins of electrons. Other examples of nanotechnology have been in a transparent coating of a few nanometres thick on glass cutting down on infra-red (ie heat) penetration and allowing more light to get through into buildings. Nanoscale particles of iron compounds can be used to clean up waste sites and break down hazardous organic compounds such as PCBs, dry cleaning fluids and neutralizing poisons such as lead and arsenic. Far more effective than larger iron-based compounds; but admittedly this is still being tested. Getting heat out of the increasingly tiny but faster computer integrated circuits is also a growing area of nanotechnology research and application.

Typical benefits of nanotechnology include: atomically engineered food and crops, clean water supplies, smart foods, cheap energy generation and savings, improved design and production of pharmaceuticals, greater information storage and interactive smart appliances. On the other hand,  many feel that it will widen the rich-poor gap, provide very toxic chemicals and break down the barriers between life and non-life with destructive consequences for humanity.

As with all new technologies, you can ignore nanotechnology and  hope it will go away but eventually I believe there will be the inevitable Tsunami like effect on your life and business.

How can you take advantage of these marvellous (and possibly dangerous) technologies in a positive way?

• Open your mind and read as much as possible on nanotechnology
• Talk to your colleagues about it
• Look for applications in your field – you will be amazed how many applications are opening up on a daily basis
• See how this can transform your business
• Understand and argue about the ethics/morality of some of the applications (eg DNA manipulation)  – we need to avoid this becoming another dirty field of science
• Look for opportunities to gain skills in these technologies where possible to provide support to others

Hopefully the tiny particles that constitute work in nanotechnology are not identified in the following way, as Dave Barry wryly observed:

Electricity is actually made up of extremely tiny particles called electrons, that you cannot see with the naked eye unless you have been drinking.

Yours in engineering learning


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