Labs in your pocket

Labs in your pocket

Nanotechnology researchers at the University of Waterloo create miniature electronics capable of detecting environmental threats, storing enormous amounts of data, and producing clean energy
November 1, 2006
In an environmental emergency, like a chemical spill or industrial fire, every second counts. Yet, valuable time is wasted transporting samples to a laboratory for testing. Nanotechnology offers the potential to reverse this process by bringing the lab to the site. (For an overview of the science behind nanotechnology, read the story Tiny Titan)

“In five to 10 years, we could be on the site of an environmental crisis with a nanodevice that fits in a shirt pocket and makes results available on the spot,” says Vassili Karanassios, a chemistry professor at the University of Waterloo. Currently, the mass spectrometer in Karanassio’s lab, a standard analysis tool, would never fit in a shirt pocket—it weighs almost a tonne. It also consumes a lot of electricity and costs more than $100,000. But Karanassios is working towards making the pocket lab a reality.

His ability to use nanotechnology to think small is uncovering big opportunities. Karanassios developed a handheld vehicle emissions tester that uses two nine-volt batteries, replacing a much larger energy-hungry machine. He has also developed a device that can detect the toxic element mercury at a nanoscale. It’s so precise it can detect mercury when people with silver-coloured dental fillings exhale.

This research could lead to personal alarm-type devices that would warn people about potential hazards. For example, Karanassios sees asthmatics carrying personal air-quality detectors, and campers using a nanodevice to check drinking water.

Such instruments may seem futuristic, but nanotechnology is already at work in the electronics we use in our day-to-day lives. The integrated circuits in the computer chips of today’s latest PCs are smaller than 50 nanometres, making them many times smaller, yet much more powerful than models from only a year ago. This is just one example of how nanotechnology has the power to change our lives.

“Nanotechnology means things like faster and safer drug delivery, cleaner energy, and much more powerful computers. It has the potential to become the backbone of many established and emerging industries,” says Tong Leung, a chemistry professor and director of the Waterloo Advanced Technology Laboratory (WATLab).

Leung is working on a number of projects that could change how we use technology, including super-high-density data storage that uses nanotechnology to vastly increase the storage capabilities of magnetic strips.

Precisely how researchers unlock the potential of nanotechnology in the years ahead remains to be seen. But no one doubts that nanotechnology will have a dramatic impact on the electronic devices we rely on today and in the future.

“When it comes to the potential of nanotechnology, the writing isn’t just on the wall, it’s spelled out in neon lights,” says Karanassios.


From pocket-size test labs to unbelievable data-storage capabilities, nanotechnology has the potential to profoundly alter how we live, making today’s electronic devices seem extremely antiquated. For example, light bulbs typically only convert five percent of electrical energy into light. Light-emitting diodes built with nanotechnology could drastically improve this conversion rate. Nanostructures will also be able to increase the efficiency of solar cells and help convert more of the sun’s energy into usable electrical energy.

With such promise for so many industries, nanotechnology sets the stage for the next revolution. The industrial and IT revolutions ushered in new ways of living and delivered huge improvements in living standards. Nanotechnology holds the potential to do the same and more.

And Canada is stepping up to be at the forefront of this revolution.

“We are the first in the world to offer not just a specialization but an entire undergraduate nanotechnology engineering degree program that combines engineering and science,” says Vassili Karanassios, a chemistry professor at the University of Waterloo. “Some of our graduates will become the renaissance engineers who have the potential to help define the 21st Century.”


The University of Waterloo has established strong collaborations and partnerships to pursue innovative, multidisciplinary research. Waterloo’s Giga-to-Nano Electronics Laboratory has facilitated large-scale interdisciplinary efforts between researchers from universities and research centres from across Canada with a focus on nanoelectronics.

Researchers at these institutions are involved in joint projects carried out in the laboratory, including visit exchanges, joint seminars and the joint supervision of students. The Waterloo Advanced Technology Laboratory offers a premier facility that supports innovative multidisciplinary research endeavours in Canada’s Technology Triangle of Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, and Guelph.

Waterloo has also established international collaborative partnerships with top academic institutions internationally, including Princeton University and the University of Cambridge, as well as with research and development laboratories of major original equipment manufacturers in Asia and the United States.

Learn More

Visit the Nanoword Library.

Take advantage of nanotechnology resources for students.

Visit Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology.

Learn more about nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo.