Intel CEO Paul Ortelli holds a wafer of computer chips with 32-nanometer circuitry.

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Nanowire Applications

Perhaps the most obvious use for nanowires is in electronics. Some nanowires are very good conductors or semiconductors, and their miniscule size means that manufacturers could fit millions more transistors on a single microprocessor. As a result, computer speed would increase dramatically.

Nanowires may play an important role in the field of quantum computers. A team of researchers in the Netherlands created nanowires out of indium arsenide and attached them to aluminum electrodes. At temperatures near absolute zero, aluminum becomes a superconductor, meaning it can conduct electricity without any resistance. The nanowires also became superconductors due to the proximity effect. The researchers could control the superconductivity of the nanowires by running various voltages through the substrate under the wires [source: New Scientist].

Nanowires may also play an important role in nano-size devices like nanorobots. Doctors could use the nanorobots to treat diseases like cancer. Some nanorobot designs have onboard power systems, which would require structures like nanowires to generate and conduct power.

Using piezoelectric material, nanoscientists could create nanowires that generate electricity from kinetic energy. The piezoelectric effect is a phenomenon certain materials exhibit -- when you apply physical force to a piezoelectric material, it emits an electric charge. If you apply an electric charge to this same material, it vibrates. Piezoelectric nanowires might provide power to nano-size systems in the future, though at present there are no practical applications.

There are hundreds of other potential nanowire applications in electronics. Researchers in Japan are working on atomic switches that might some day replace semiconductor switches in electronic devices. Scientists with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory hope that coaxial nanowires will improve the energy efficiency of solar cells. Because we are still learning about the properties of nanowires and other nanoscale structures, there could be thousands of applications we haven't even considered yet.

To learn more about nanowires and related topics, follow the links on the next page.