This past May, I wrote about IBM's (NYSE: IBM ) active involvement in nanotechnology and argued that its sizeable investment in the field offered a strong reason to be bullish about the company's long-term prospects. (In the last six months, Big Blue's stock has appreciated about 15%.)
Last week, IBM researchers offered further evidence for my long-term bullishness, announcing that they had fabricated nanotube devices 1,000 times more efficient at emitting light than previous models. To be fair, the researchers were careful to point out that yield of these devices was "still small," and that the light-emitting carbon nanotubes would still have to improve by a factor of 10 to 100 before they could be expected to lead to widespread uses in computers, telecommunications devices, and lighting.
I believe, however, that the advancement strongly signals IBM's confidence that carbon nanotubes will play an integral role in the development of a wide variety of future products. For instance, as the electronic circuits on computer chips become smaller, conventional transistors will begin to run into physical limitations. Carbon nanotubes -- which have proven to be an excellent current-carrying material -- will allow the miniaturization of chips to continue beyond the limits of current silicon-based device technology and lead to significantly more powerful computers. IBM's work in the field of carbon nanotubes -- where it has already built a single-wall carbon nanotube field-effect transistor -- could give it a strong advantage over Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , AMD (NYSE: AMD ) , and Infineon (NYSE: IFX ) .
More important, perhaps, than carbon nanotubes' current-carrying capacity is their ability to convert an electronic signal into an optical signal in a highly efficient manner. The incompatibilities between the semiconductor materials for electronics and optics have been a major problem for chip makers, because the process of converting electrical signals into optical ones was so cumbersome. This latest development hints that IBM may be on the cusp of smashing through this barrier.
The light-emitting nanotubes, because they can produce tightly focused light, may also be used for optical probing. This advancement, if used in conjunction with IBM's work in the area of nanoscale magnetic resonance imaging, could make the 3-D imaging of molecules a real possibility, leading to a much better understanding of biological structures. And this, in turn, could open up a host of new opportunities in the area of disease detection, as well as the creation of new pharmaceutical products.
So while the promise of these light-emitting carbon nanotubes may still be a ways off, I'm confident this latest breakthrough will shine a light bright enough to help IBM's researchers create a myriad of new products in the not-too-distant future.
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich has been accused by teachers and friends alike of thinking small since grade school. He is the author of The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business and the forthcoming book, Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He can be reached at email@example.com. He owns shares of IBM and Intel. The Fool has a disclosure policy.