Expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT), the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 is continuing at pace, underpinned by our ability to record ever-more-accurate data and perform increasingly automated analysis. Advances in software, algorithm and machine learning mean you can now get sensor networks that run independently for much of the time, with human input only required if the system detects a problem and notifies the operator.

These sophisticated sensor networks and their associated data-handling capabilities can be used in anything from smart buildings to manufacturing. They enable the environments or processes to automatically optimise themselves, by analysing input from their sensors and comparing it against historical data. In many industries, this level of automation has enabled a real step-change in efficiency.

Enter nanotechnology 

For a lot of people, nanotechnology isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you mention the IoT. But it’s already helping propel the data optimisation side of things, and will likely see commercial use in the future, particularly when it comes to the sensors and the networks used to exchange data. Let’s look at the impact it can have on these two areas.

Improving the sensors at the heart of the IoT

Central to the IoT, IIoT and Industry 4.0 are the sensors that collect information. It’s here where nanotechnology could potentially make the biggest difference, by increasing the precision of the initial measurements these sensors take. Software and data analysis techniques are progressing all the time, meaning systems are equipped to handle the increased volume of data that would result from greater sensor precision. And of course, the more precise the initial data reading is, the more precise the whole connected system becomes.

The increased efficiency that’s achievable by using nanomaterials for sensing is well-documented. Their small sizes, particularly when working with 2D materials such as graphene, can give you a large surface area for sensing changes in an environment.

Of course, there are many types of sensing mechanism. Some are remote. Others work through molecule absorption or by responding to physical changes. The great thing is that nanomaterials have characteristics that can make these sensing mechanisms more effective. This can include by measuring distant optical changes, adsorbing atoms on a surface, or by being able to be compressed, stretched or flexed. Choosing the right nanomaterials means you can do one or even all of these things.

The increased sensitivity of these materials is typically the result of their high electrical conductivity and charge carrier mobility. When something is detected, the sensing mechanism changes the nanomaterial’s electrical conductivity, which can then be measured. And by using nanomaterials with particularly high conductivity and charge carrier mobility, you can achieve extremely high levels of sensor sensitivity, where even very slight changes to the material’s conductivity trigger a detectable response.

Introducing the IoNT

The above isn’t the only area of the IoT and IIoT where nanotechnology can have an impact. It can also be used to create a physical network that enables data to be exchanged via components that communicate at the nano level. This concept is called the Internet of Nano Things (IoNT). While it isn’t yet as mature in terms of its development as other aspects of the IoT, it’s garnering a lot of interest, including from the medical and communications industries. Use cases include field-based applications that require remote sensing, or to measure points within the human body.

How does the IoNT work?

The IoNT is made up of multiple components, which typically communicate in one of two ways. This can be via molecular communication (where information is encoded in molecules) or electromagnetic nano-communication (where data is transmitted via electromagnetic waves).

The components themselves fall into four broad categories that help transfer information: nano-nodes, nano-routers, nano-micro interface devices and gateways.

Nano-nodes are the smallest and simplest component, and are regarded as basic nanomachines. These can transmit data and perform rudimentary computations. But their size and energy limitations mean they only have small amounts of memory and are restricted in how far they can transmit data. However, you can put a nano-node in a given location and have it send its data to a nearby nano-router, which is then capable of transmitting it over a greater distance. This means nano-nodes can frequently be used as the system’s sensor components.

The nano-router is a much more powerful nanomachine that aggregates the data coming from multiple nano-nodes, controls the exchange commands between these nodes and transmits the data to a nano-micro interface device. The interface device, in turn, aggregates data from multiple nano-routers and sends it onwards to the microscale, via nano-communication and/or traditional network protocols. Finally, the gateway forms the controller for the entire system, and enables the information to be accessed over the internet.

Nanotechnology: A big role to play

With growth of the IoT, IIoT and Industry 4.0 continuing at pace, we may reach a point where the sensing of data needs to be more precise and the transfer of information needs to take place through significantly smaller architectures than it does currently. It’s at this point we’re likely to see a boom in commercial demand for nanotechnology and IoNT equipment. And the groundwork being put in by engineers around the world today will help ensure the technology is ready to meet this anticipated demand.

 

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Mouser Electronics is a worldwide leading authorised distributor of semiconductors and electronic components for over 800 industry-leading manufacturers. They specialise in the rapid introduction of new products and technologies for design engineers and buyers. Mouser Electronics extensive product offering includes semiconductors, interconnects, passives, and electromechanical components.

About the author

Mark Patrick joined Mouser Electronics in July 2014 having previously held senior marketing roles at RS Components. Prior to RS, Mark spent 8 years at Texas Instruments in Applications Support and Technical Sales roles and holds a first class Honours Degree in Electronic Engineering from Coventry University.