January 15, 2021

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Pico technology: The next frontier?

pico technology

By Blaine Denton

Although the definition and understanding of nano and pico technologies has evolved over the years, the term nano used to refer to the manipulation of matter “as far down as we go up,” said Pavlov Rudenko, chief technology officer of TriboTex, based in Colfax, Wash., U.S.A. Essentially, pico technology could eventually allow for the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale.

Thus far, one of the more ubiquitous applications has been nanolubrication. Despite the great potential, there are three basic problems with nanolubrication: stability, dispersability and the potential for increased wear and tear. For the purposes of this article, there are two central questions—what has nano/pico technology done, and what could it do?

Boris Zhmud

Boris Zhmud

Boris Zhmud, chief technology officer at Applied Nano Surfaces in Uppsala, Sweden, believes that pico technology is still in its nascent stage, and “any serious talks about [it] in lubricants are premature.” Zhmud, who began his career as a scientist working on “the border of surface chemistry, physical chemistry and theoretical chemistry,” does however have a great deal of experience working with nano materials. Zhmud decided to make the switch from academia to the industrial sector and he has worked on a technology called Triboconditioning®, which greatly reduces wear and tear on metal surfaces. The company has worked to increase efficiency when it comes to the “running in” period during the first 5,000-10,000 kilometres of new engines. Rather than use special “running-in” oil for the first factory fill, “all critical engine components, including valve train and cylinder bores, are run-in in manufacture, before the engine is assembled.”


Nano and especially pico technology hold some exciting applications for materials analysis, which could then lend itself to new technological developments. According to a paper from the Nanoscience and Technology Institute (NSTI), “metal oxide particles display their existence at the level of picomolecules in solution state and bioactive states in the body.” This means that engineers can use methods such as Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) to gain information that can lead to higher fuel efficiency and less wear and tear on moving parts. AFM allows for the examination of surfaces on the pico level, making it feasible to see exactly how rough a surface is at extraordinarily high resolutions. Such information can be used to observe interactions between atoms. The Stribeck curve categorises the friction properties between two surfaces, which can be used to model fuel efficiency, as well as wear and tear.


Applications for pico technology also extend to lubricants in the automotive industry. Rudenko explained how nanomaterials have been used to decrease wear and tear at the atomic level. Graphene, one of the most promising materials in a number of different industries, has been used as a lubricant to significantly decrease wear and tear in engines. The graphene breakthrough has to do with its ability to reduce friction, based on its structure at the nano scale. Manipulation at the atomic level could allow for the creation of materials with properties on different sides. For example, a lubricant could have one side that is chemically active, while another is inert. This would allow one side to easily attach to materials, while also reducing friction on the other. The film could be “built particle by particle and help lubricants remain in interphase,” Rudenko said.

One of the more promising applications of nano technology thus far has been to address the “downsize and charge” trend within the automotive industry. One such example can be seen in the heavily boosted small displacement engines. Volvo’s XC 90, for example, is powered by a a 2.0-litre (L) engine, which is boosted to over 300 horsepower (HP). BMW boasts a 340 HP engine in their 3 L diesel. These new and more powerful engines place higher demands on motor oils. These demands are difficult to meet, given the current technology, but Zhmud explained that, “Nanomaterials do indeed have potential for addressing some such challenges, yet there is a long way to go before balanced formulations are developed.”


Despite the work that has been done, Zhmud does not “foresee any meaningful developments with ‘pico’ affix relevant to lubricants and lubrication engineering, at least during [his] life. ”The reason for Zhmud’s skepticism lies in the nature of chemical transformations. Said Zhmud, “Oils are made of molecules, molecules are made of atoms. Atomic chemical bonds have got a length of 0.1 to 0.16 nm, with typical oil molecules being of ‘nanometer’ size. Chemical transformations of molecules fall into the area of chemistry, and transformations of atoms and elementary particles into the areas of nuclear and elementary particle physics.” He added that the term has fallen prey to use mostly as a buzzword.

On the other hand, pico technology, which was once heralded as a “hypothetical future level of technological manipulation of matter,” by Bob Trivetter, Dale Elenteny and Joe Manfreda, could soon become a reality, which could succeed where nanotechnology did not.

Rudenko is one of the people with a more optimistic view of pico technology’s potential within the industry. Rudenko’s view is that while the technology is indeed in its nascent stages, there is room for great innovation, just as there was when the Internet first appeared on the scene.


To understand why pico technology could be such a step forward for the industry, it is first important to grasp what it is in relation to current solutions. Pico technology allows for the manipulation of matter three orders of magnitude smaller than the current threshold of nanometers.

Futurists refer to the alteration of an individual atom’s chemical properties through changes made to the energy states of electrons. This level of accuracy has numerous, exciting applications, both within and outside of the lubricant industry.

Driven forward by the impetus of improved fuel economy, pico technology has gained a foothold within the fuels and lubricants industry. Amongst other applications, pico technology can be used to significantly decrease surface friction. According to a paper published by Zhmud and Bogdan Pasalskiy, there are four major classes of material to be considered: fullerenes, nanodiamonds, ultradispersed boric acid and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Although they each have their pros and cons, these materials achieve their goals in a similar fashion by filling in the pores of metal surfaces through contact with lubricants. If particles suspended in lubricants are small enough to fill porous metals such as those within engines, they can create a phenomenon similar to hydroplaning. As the metal surfaces move across each other faster, the fluid creates a film between them that greatly reduces friction by allowing the surfaces to roll back and forth smoothly.


Pavlov Rudenko, TriboTex

Pavlov Rudenko

Rudenko further explained by drawing parallels between the adoption of nanoadditives and the adoption of the Internet in the early 2000s. Essentially, the part of the disparity between nanotechnology’s potential and its application boils down to the perception that future applications far exceed development of the technology. Furthermore, just as nobody in 2001 foresaw the explosion of social networks and shared economies online, there are many possible applications for nanoadditives that have not yet been predicted. Rudenko explained that in those years, the perception ofwhat could be created was faster than the development of technology. “What we dreamed of back then is what we enjoy now,” he said.

Despite the potential, pico technology has some significant hurdles to overcome, in light of nanotechnology’s shortcomings. According to Rudenko, “There exists a certain gap, both in attitude and competence, between university researchers and lube industry professionals as their willingness to venture out for new products is concerned. One practical issue is that lubricant formulations must be balanced with respect to a number of properties. This hinders market entry of nanoadditives.”


As with most new technologies, nano and pico materials have started out as prohibitively expensive. But each iteration slowly makes it more affordable for mass-market adoption. It is likely that nano additives will go through the same cycle as computers, which started out as incredibly expensive niche technologies, but soon transformed into ubiquitous consumer-products.

Pico technology also has the potential for innovation in industries such as biotechnology. In a paper on biomedical science, Thomas K. Webster, professor and chair of Chemical Engineering at Northeastern University, explained how the use of nano and pico molecules has been used to revolutionise medicine, particularly in the “improved prevention, diagnosis and treatment of numerous diseases.”

To date, nanomaterials have been used to “minimize cell interactions, inhibit infection and increase tissue growth,” all of which contribute to healthier tissue growth. Pico technology facilitates even greater innovations, as it could allow scientists to alter electron distributions around atoms, thus promoting increased surface energy, tissue growth, decreased inflammation and a decreased chance of infection. Two of the more common medical procedures to enhance life expectancy are medical device insertion and organ transplantation. However, these options are hindered by high cost and a lack of donors respectively.

Furthermore, current technology has not allowed for the degree of accuracy necessary to emulate the properties of natural tissues. Nanomaterials were a step towards attenuating these shortcomings, but they are not without their limitations. Chief among those limitations is the potential for toxicity within the body. According to the paper, “having control over electron distribution may greatly change surface energy and, thus, the way that proteins absorb onto a material.” Essentially, the technology could allow for a greater control over a material’s desirable properties.


Moore’s Law is a well-known observation that throughout the history of computers, the number of transistors in a circuit has roughly doubled every two years. Though many theorists, including the law’s namesake, have speculated that we are fast approaching the point where this pace can no longer be maintained. Moore himself said in an interview that the projection “can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.” Moore went on to explain that the limit for miniaturisation would likely be the size of atoms—or in other words, pico technology would be the limit in terms of scales.


According to Pete Badovinac, executive vice president of the Horizon Die Co. in East Dundee, Ill., U.S.A., the three most important trends within the industry are “the continuing need to increase fuel efficiency, secondly, the green movement to conserve and preserve the environment and finally, the continuing drive to differentiate automobiles by increasing features. These days, features are largely electronics driven, from back-up cameras to crash avoidance systems.” However shrinking down component parts is easier said than done. Badovinac explained, “The degree of difficulty associated with designing new miniature parts is significantly higher than simply taking a previously designed, proven and used part and quickly rolling it into the next new system that comes along.” Within a vehicle, there are two domains in which nano and pico technology can have a profound impact. Obviously miniaturization impacts every part of a car, but the scale at which mechanical parts can be shrunk down is many times larger than either car batteries or the associated onboard computers.

According to the Institute of Physics, a modern car has more computing power than the supercomputers NASA used to send astronauts to the moon. Why does a car need so much computing power? There are two real market factors at play. First among them are the modern emission laws, which require precise control over how much pollution a car can emit. Onboard computers offer control over air/fuel mixtures to be regulated through catalytic converters to minimize emissions. The second factor is much broader in scope— smaller computers allow for manufacturers to produce cars jam-packed with a multitude of features. Modern cars can now: warn drivers of imminent collisions, display real-time speed limits, assist with parking, warn drivers if they swerve, and project a Heads-Up Display on the windshield to provide information about the car. Another fascinating development in the automotive industry can be found in a concept car developed by Volkswagen. The Volkswagen Nanospyder embodies the possibilities surrounding tiny technology and cars as it boasted, “Hydrogen fuel cells, solar power, wheel-mounted electric motors and inflatable organic body panels combine to form the unusual shape of the two-seater concept.” According to the Santa Monica design team, “The Nanospyder would be formed out of a latticework of billions of tiny programmable nano devices measuring less than half a millimeter in diameter. Each of these tiny devices can be programmed to be as strong or as weak as required, meaning active crumple zones can be created.”


Similarly, miniaturisation has been a powerful impetus throughout one of the world’s most popular sectors— consumer electronics. Cell phones, laptops and tablets embody the ever-growing trend of miniaturisation. If the average modern car has more computing power than it took to get man on the moon then high-end smartphones are well beyond even that. The miniaturization of technology in cell phones is well documented with regards to computing and processing, but one exciting application of nanotechnology lies closer to the surface. One such application is a product called Liquipel, a super hydrophobic coating that bonds to all internal and external components of a device on the molecular level. According to the eponymous company, Liquipel is 1,000 times thinner than a human hair and the waterproof coating will not alter the look or feel of cell phones and tablets.


But perhaps most impressive amongst all the modern car’s tricks and features is the ability for a car to drive itself. Google, amongst its many other accomplishments, has been one of the pioneers in the technology behind self-driving cars. But how does a car drive itself? The answer is an extremely advanced computer combined with very accurate software. Andrew Chatham, the Google self-driving car team’s mapping lead, explained, “Rather than having to figure out what the world looks like and what it means from scratch every time we turn on the software, we tell it what the world is expected to look like when it is empty. And then the job of the software is to figure out how the world is different from that expectation. This makes the problem a lot simpler.” Although the tiny but- powerful onboard computers perform a great deal of the workload, some information is also handed off to an array of remote computers hosted by the tech giant. The car itself can recognise features like curbs, sidewalks, other cars, traffic lights and even roadwork and detours. Most impressively though, is the car’s safety record. To date, the only accidents involving self-driving cars were due to human error on the part of other drivers.


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