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Area has big stake in tiny technology

Applications of nanotechnology could open up a new class of industry in the Tampa Bay region.

Published August 29, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - A million miniature mirrors implanted on an electronic chip light up the latest generation of rear-projection televisions.

That's one example of a commercial application of micro and nano technology.

The ink jet cartridge in the average computer printer. Super-strong military body armor. Surgical tools so small physicians monitor them through microscopes.

All are practical uses of emerging technologies to which several hundred scientists, business people and academics are devoting a better part of a week at St. Petersburg's Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

The Tampa Bay area's importance in the field could soon be more than theoretical.

The California research outfit SRI International is said to be close to announcing a plan to join with the University of South Florida in building a research center in downtown St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg could specialize in marine applications for the miniature technology, including underwater sensors to help fight terrorism. Inventions hatched here could help detect bombs on ships entering ports and even snare enemy frogmen intent on mischief.

"There's a huge need for instrumentation for detecting those threats," said James Wylde of CSM Analytical, a Texas company that hopes to break ground on sensors to detect chemical and biological weapons. "There's also a demand for hand-held devices you can use in airports."

Micro and nano systems describe technology created on a miniature or molecular scale. As one conference attendee, the University of Mexico's Steve Walsh, described it: "It's generally everything engineered on a space smaller than a thumbnail."

More than most other innovations, micro and nano technology holds great potential to be disruptive, revolutionizing the way we live.

It's happening now in the TV industry. A mirrored chip invented by Texas Instruments led to the popular DLP rear projection technology. Ten million sets have been produced already.

But even the current generation of DLP, which uses powerful but expensive light bulbs to illuminate the mirrors, will soon seem obsolete, conference attendees said.

To compete with thinner LCD TVs, Mitsubishi plans to release a DLP TV by Christmas 2007 that will be only half the width of current rear-projection TVs and use a cheaper laser instead of a light bulb.

The same innovate-or-die atmosphere affects the market for ink jet printers, another example of micro technology. Hewlett Packard and Cannon are abandoning disposable ink jet cartridges in favor of a built-in ink system.

In the medical field, miniaturization, including coating medicines in special time-lapse polymers, promises to improve life. New hand-held devices could let hospitals dispense with central laboratories in analyzing blood specimens. Doctors could take readings at bedsides, said Dr. J. Malcolm Wilkinson, an expert on medical applications of the technology.

Wilkinson was quick to warn of the limits of miniaturization. "The worst thing you could do," he said, "is put a picture in the newspaper of a little submarine that travels through the blood."

[Last modified August 29, 2006, 00:02:01]

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