Aug 21 2012

Armor Cloth: “Utility Fog” Without The Need For Nano


About twenty years ago, way back when I was taking my courses in electronic repair, I got interested in MEMs, Micro Electro-Mechanical devices. They were at a very early stage then, barely even out of the lab, but the potential was so enormous that I spent considerable time thinking about ways that they could be used to create unbelievable amounts of change in our daily lives without ever invoking nanotechnology. I really wish I still had all the notes I wrote down, but sadly they got lost over the course of a couple of hard drive crashes and moves.

I’ve already introduced two of the concepts I had contemplated on H+ magazine and here on Acceler8or —I discussed the Camera/Display MEMs in my article on Quantum Dots, and cloth composed of synthetic muscle fibers in my article on “dirty” uses for technology. These are two of the multiple items I collectively called “Active cloths” because they were all basically types of cloth that did something rather than merely set there. “Display cloth” and “Muscle cloth” were the simplest of the four, followed by “Cling cloth” which used static fields like a Gecko’s foot to cling to any surface, and the last and most complex, “Armor Cloth.”

Armor cloth was inspired by several Sci-fi novels that described “spacesuits” that could harden on impact to prevent penetration of blades or projectiles, then return to cloth-like softness. My concept revolved around cubical MEMS, each about a micron on a side, joined to each other by telescoping links — essentially ball joints at the ends of a shaft that could extend about 3 microns or collapse to less than one. This would allow each cube to connect to six other cubes in a network that would allow the entire structure to act like cloth on a human scale. As I planned to make these cubes out of carbon, as well as the shafts connecting them, it seemed reasonable to assume nearly diamond-like strength for any individual unit, and with multiple layers of thickness, an overall toughness likely to withstand impacts sufficient to protect an individual from most forms of combat weaponry short of anti-tank rounds. Under normal circumstances, the “blocks” would use small magnetic fields to repel one another and remain extended, giving the cloth-like effect. However, at the moment of impact, these fields would reverse, causing the “links” to collapse as each cube snapped against their neighbors, creating a “solid”. As I had oriented these blocks to be in a diagonal mesh with the corners pointed outwards, the impact would push the outer layer of blocks against their neighbors in a manner that would divert the force along the cloth rather than through it, allowing the wearer of such cloth to avoid the majority of impact, and prevent damage. While Shear-Thickening Fluids can perform similarly, the advantage to armor cloth is it’s a controllable process. A tiny microprocessor in each cube would be able to control the magnetic fields that either repulse or attract each neighbor, and the strength of those fields. As each cube could identify where it was in the grid, such control would allow a given item composed of armor cloth to be as hard or as flexible as it was programmed to be, even allowing different regions of the same cloth to have different properties.

In other words, this is the “cloth” that Batman is using in his new cloak in the Christian Bale movies. Cloth with a controllable hardness could allow for such things as tables that are strong enough to support an elephant, but that collapse to the hardness of rubber when you trip and crash face first into it. Or a “parachute” that can snap out into a pair of wings like Batman’s cape. I had several hundred pages of concepts that use the properties of armor cloth, from children’s “safe furniture” to full body “Ironman” armor suits designed to protect police and firefighters in dangerous environments and even combat armor for troops. In fact, one of the items I lost is my copy of the letter I sent to the Army’s research division working on combat suits outlining the concept.

The point is that by using armor cloth, you could do some very radical things. Hollow shells of cloth could act like entire pieces of furniture, be it an ottoman or a desk. My wings could be composed entirely of armor cloth, the “arms” programmed to mimic bone, with the membranes as pliable as rubber. Toss in some “muscle cloth” to enable me to control them like wings and, viola, lightweight succubus wings that I can collapse down when not in use.

Now, I’m sure some of you more astute readers will likely realize that “Armor Cloth” is merely a simplified form of “Utility Fog” at the micro scale rather than the nano scale. In other words, it’s a form of Claytronics or Programmable Matter. And I’m sure that many of you are also dismissing this concept as “impossible” or “wishful thinking”. Don’t worry, I’ve been getting that response for nearly 20 years.

Pity is that you are not merely wrong, but in denial. In fact, MIT is already pretty far along in making it a reality. Aside from the telescoping arms connecting each “block”, their “Smart Sand” is virtually identical to the “Armor Cloth” concept. Each block connects to every other block via controlled magnetic fields. Each has a tiny computer able to determine its place in the whole and vary its “magneticness” according to a program. And they can assume any shape that can be broken down into a 3D grid.

Smart Sand. It might be the size of pebbles now, but the concept has been proven, and it’s only a matter of time until it gets smaller. Before very many more years have passed, we might be seeing thousands of products whose “existence” consists of nothing more than a computer file that tells a pile of “Smart Sand” what shape to assume and what properties to have.

So, if I were you, I’d get busy playing Minecraft. Those are going to be some valuable jobs skills in the near future.

Nov 15 2011

The 3D Chips Are Down… Sort Of


If you’ve been reading about the electronics industry recently, you’ve probably heard about Intel announcing that it was going to begin making all new transistors in 3 dimensions back in May. It was recently discussed by IEEE Spectrum, and a very good history of the transistor is covered. Even Kurzweil is claiming that his prediction for “3D Chips” has come true: While not yet commonly used in all chips, most semiconductors fabricated today for MEMS and CMOS image sensors are in fact 3D chips using vertical stacking technology.

However, there are fine technical definitions of “3d” and there are commonly accepted definitions of “3d.” And this is a case where the definition of “3d” is probably not the one you are thinking of.

Some of you might be old enough to remember DOOM in its original release. It was a ground breaking innovation for its time because it introduced REAL 3D! in a video game for the first time. Except that it actually didn’t. That might come as a shock to all of you who’ve fallen off a ledge into a pool of toxic goo, but the reality is that DOOM made some very clever use of what was still essentially a 2D world. Nothing actually could exist “above” anything else. If you “climbed” a set of stairs, the space at the top of the stairs couldn’t be “above” the space at the bottom of the stairs. You could raise any given square of space to any height, but that square was still the only thing that could occupy that 2D grid co-ordinate.

In much the same way, Intel’s move to FIN-FET design is adding an element of 3D to transistor design. It creates a raised “Fin” of the channel material enabling the gate to wrap around 3 sides, increasing the effectiveness of the gate enormously. But, much like DOOM, it’s not 3d in the manner which allows a chip to be designed with layers of circuits placed on top of other layers.

That is not to say that there are not major advantages to this move, because by increasing the efficiency of the gate has tremendous effects on the power consumption of a transistor, which in turn will lead to lower heat production, less “leakage” across the transistor in it’s off state, and the ability to more densely pack transistors, enabling continuing progress in silicon for at least three more “generations.” But as Brian Wang points out, it has a probable limit of 0.7nm size, before the leakage and parasitic capacitances render it problematic to reduce size further.

But again, that’s several years away yet. From a practical standpoint, the “value” of this move to the end user will prove significant. This greater efficiency per transistor magnified over the billions in a processor means a major improvement in energy consumption. Combined with other energy saving advances, such processors will likely radically extend the time between recharges needed for many portable devices, as well as lower the operating costs of standard computers. The less a processor consumes, the lower the heat it generates, the less cooling is needed, the lower the overall energy cost become. While that might not seem like much to a home user, it’s a huge concern to businesses of every size that rely on numerous computers to run their business.

It’s not the “3D” chip architecture you might have thought it was. It is however a significant step towards it.