Nanotechnology breakthrough rocks molecular electronics

- Edmonton, Alberta

Research collaboration opens new doors for commercial success

Rock music fans have long loved the distorted sound of electric guitars. From the Rolling Stones to Metallica, some of the world’s most popular bands have relied on distortion pedals to alter audio signals and deliver the distinctive sound that has become synonymous with great rock. But a recent technological breakthrough in nanotechnology is redefining the way we experience electronic music.

Researchers at the National Research Council (NRC) and the University of Alberta (UAlberta) have applied molecular electronics to develop an innovative guitar distortion pedal called the Heisenberg Molecular Overdrive. Using molecules as circuit components, the pedal delivers a unique sound with an unparalleled voice and feel.

Based on a prototype built in 2014, NRC and UAlberta researchers in Edmonton, Alberta helped create the world’s first commercial device to use molecular electronics. The product was brought to market in late 2015 by Canadian guitar pedal manufacturers Ryan and Tanya Clarke, who were granted a temporary licensing agreement through their Summerland, British Columbia-based company, Dr. Scientist. Today, NRC and UAlberta are poised to raise the volume on the commercial success of their new technology solution.

The power of thinking small

Based on a prototype built in 2014, Richard McCreery (left) and Adam Bergren (right) helped create the world’s first commercial device to use molecular electronics.
Photo credit: John Ulan, University of Alberta Faculty of Science

Part of the appeal of the Heisenberg Molecular Overdrive’s sound results from nanoscale electron transport, which uses quantum mechanical tunneling. Tunneling is fundamentally different from the principles at work in conventional electronic components, delivering a rare and remarkable tone. “In music, there is no ‘better,’ there is just ‘different,’” says NRC Senior Research Officer Adam Bergren, who co-invented the Heisenberg with UAlberta professor Richard McCreery. “That’s where the real value in this product lies—it enables people to express diverse musical ideas through the flexibility that the technology can provide.”

The Heisenberg’s initial commercial success makes it clear that the industry recognizes its value. Since the product was brought to market, the NRC and UAlberta collaboration has manufactured 400 molecular junctions for 130 Heisenberg units, which have been sold through 21 distributors in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. “All of the Heisenberg Molecular Overdrive pedals that Dr. Scientist carried have sold out, and many have been resold on eBay at a higher retail price,” says NRC Client Relationship Leader Jose Raez. “There’s certainly a great demand for the product.”

The collaboration between NRC and UAlberta project teams was pivotal in accelerating the commercialization of molecular electronics, drawing on the particular skills, resources and knowledge provided by each partner. Now, with proven real-world applications to draw from, a new spinoff company has just signed a license to scale-up the nanotechnology and broaden its reach.

Expanding possibilities and creating opportunities

In September 2015, looking to continue their successful partnership and capitalize on the demand for the Heisenberg, Bergren and McCreery formed Nanolog Audio Inc. Based in Edmonton, the company will manufacture and sell molecular junctions to Dr. Scientist and other leading electronic musical instrument businesses. And then, Nanolog plans to push the limits of this innovative technology even further.

Bergren acknowledges the important role the Heisenberg has played, as a popular molecular electronics product that provides a function in the real world—and offers a lot of enjoyment to those creating music. But he and McCreery share a vision that will lend even greater credibility to the field as a whole. “Molecular electronics is a platform technology with the potential to do much more than just generate harmonics,” says Bergren. “Heisenberg has provided the launching pad from which to envision many other applications.”

With 10 patents, more than 50 scientific publications and the burgeoning possibility of new production opportunities, it’s clear that this nanotechnology is poised to go far beyond enhancing the rock scene at clubs and concerts around the world. For researchers and industry alike, that news is sweet music to hear.

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