How Nanowires Work

Nanowire Applications
Intel CEO Paul Ortelli holds a wafer of computer chips with 32-nanometer circuitry.
Intel CEO Paul Ortelli holds a wafer of computer chips with 32-nanometer circuitry.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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 below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "A Nanowire with a Surprise." Brookhaven National Laboratory. October 18, 2004.
  • "Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD) - An Introduction."
  • "Moore's Law." Intel.
  • "Nanoscale 'Coaxial Cables' for Solar Energy Harvesting." April 23, 2007.
  • "nanotechnology." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Oct. 2007
  • "Nanowire Coating for Bone Implants, Stents." ScienceDaily. August 28, 2007.
  • "Nanowires form atomic switch." January 6, 2005.
  • "Nanowires may provide innards for quantum computers." New Scientist. July 16, 2005. Issue 2508. Page 18.
  • "Nanowires within nanowires." November 8, 2002.
  • "Quantum Dot Introduction." Evident Technologies.
  • "Scientists Turn DNA into Nanowires." Scientific January 6, 2004.
  • "Using Nanowires to Generate Electricity by Harvesting Energy from the Environment." September 28, 2007.
  • Brambilla, Gilberto and Xu, Fei. "Optical Fibre Nanowires and Related Structures." Optoelectronics Research Centre, University of Southampton.
  • Brown, Chappell. "Bacteria grow conductive wires." EE Times. August 8, 2005.
  • Chang, Kenneth. "Nanowires May Lead to Superfast Computer Chips." The New York Times. November 9, 2001.
  • Choi, Charles Q. "Nanowires common in bacteria?" The Scientist. July 11, 2006.
  • Cortie, Michael B. "The Weird World of Nanoscale Gold." Gold Bulletin. Vol 37, 2004.
  • Cui, Yi. "Nanowires and Nanocrystals for Nanotechnology." Lecture at Stanford University. September 12, 2006.
  • Edwards, John. "Nanowires Get Bent Out Of Shape For New Technology." Electronic Design. August 2, 2007.
  • Friedrich, Craig. "Laser Ablation." Michigan Technology University.
  • Gelblum, Amit. "Self-Assembling Nanowires." The Future of Things. September 26, 2007.
  • Himpsel, Franz J. "Fabrication of Nanowires at Surfaces." University of Wisconsin Madison.
  • Hoekenga, B. Christine. "Novel Nanowires for Faster Memory." MIT Technology Review. September 27, 2007.
  • Inman, Mason. "Bacteria made to sprout conducting nanowires." July 11, 2006.
  • Stormer, Horst. "Small Wonders - The World of Nanoscience." Lecture. November 14, 2006.
  • Timmer, John. "Nanoscale printing: better nanowires through 100,000 dpi printing." Ars Technica. September 11, 2007.
  • Yarris, Lynn. "Embedded: A Benign Way to Nanowire Living Cells." Science@Berkeley Lab. August 6, 2007.

More to Explore