By Jon Van
Tribune staff reporter
March 1, 2006, 1:05 AM EST
The intrusion of cellular phone rings into theaters, schools and nearly every other nook and cranny of modern life may soon hit a wall.
Playing to the backlash against ubiquitous communication, a company called NaturalNano is developing a special high-tech paint that relies on the wizardry of nanotechnology to create a system that locks out unwanted cell phone signals on demand.
The paint represents a dream to those who seek a distraction-free movie or concert experience, and a nightmare to those who compulsively monitor their BlackBerry phones.
It is also another breakthrough application of nanotechnology, the emerging science of harnessing sub-microscopic organisms for everyday uses, like stain-resistant pants and transparent sunblock. The National Science Foundation has predicted that nanotechnology eventually will be a trillion-dollar industry.
“You could use this in a concert hall, allowing cell phones to work before the concert and during breaks, but shutting them down during the performance,” said Michael Riedlinger, president of NaturalNano of Rochester, N.Y.
His firm has found a way to use nanotechnology to blend particles of copper into paint that can be brushed onto walls and effectively deflect radio signals.
The copper is inserted into nanotubes, which are ultra-tiny tubes that occur naturally in halloysite clay mined in Utah. The nanotubes are about 20,000 times thinner than a piece of paper, too small to be seen with even a conventional microscope. At this size, which is near the molecular scale, materials have different physical properties than they normally do.
By filling these tubes with nano-particles of copper, the company can create a medium to suspend the signal-blocking metal throughout a can of paint without significantly changing the way the paint adheres to a surface.
NaturalNano will combine this signal-blocking paint scheme with a radio-filtering device that collects phone signals from outside a shielded space, allowing certain transmissions to proceed while blocking others.
Even the thought of such a thing upsets the wireless phone industry.
“We oppose any kind of blocking technology,” said Joe Farren, spokesman for The Wireless Association, the leading cell phone trade group. “What about the young parents whose baby-sitter is trying to call them, or the brain surgeon who needs notification of emergency surgery? These calls need to get through.”
Farren said that any scheme to selectively block calls is illegal.
But Robert Crowley of AMBIT Corp., which designed the radio filtering device for NaturalNano, said the system is legal. The nanotech-augmented paint that blocks signals is a passive device, not an illegal radio jammer, he said.
The radio filter would allow all emergency radio communications to pass through the shield, Crowley said. With all other signals, like cell phones, the filter would act like a spigot to block or allow them to pass through—say, only during intermission.
“There’d be no limitation of public service radio access,” he said.
Crowley said there’s a lot of pent-up demand for people to have more control of the radio space in their own buildings. His Ashland, Mass.-based firm, which develops equipment to enhance cell phone reception inside moving vehicles, often hears from such people.
“Our No. 1 request comes from churches,” he said. “Pastors want a way to stop cell phones ringing in church and people taking calls during worship services.”
Schools seek control
School administrators would also want to keep students from taking cell phone calls or sending text messages to one another during class, he said.
Most schools ban cell phone use in class, but administrators would like more control over wireless traffic.
Bill Smith, director of instructional support services for Sioux Falls, S.D., schools said his district is interested in NaturalNano’s signal-blocking paint because administrators are worried about what would happen in the event of an emergency in a school.
“During a crisis, students using cell phones would overwhelm the system, making it impossible for administrators to use cell phones to call authorities,” Smith said. “I don’t know if there’s a way to manage that.”
Smith said students are allowed to have phones in their backpacks or lockers, but if they use a phone during class, the device is confiscated and their parents are called.
“That works pretty well,” Smith said. “Whether we’d want to install a system to add further control would really depend on how much it cost. We run a pretty austere system.”
Even though they’re illegal, jamming devices that emit radio signals to prevent cell phones from working are widely available, said Tim Kridel, a wireless industry analyst.
“You can find plenty of jammers on the Internet that are shipped from other countries,” said Kridel. “But using them risks getting into trouble with the Federal Communications Commission.”
Farren, the wireless industry spokesman, said that jamming doesn’t seem to be a major problem.
“But it’s hard to detect,” he said. “Nothing shows up on your phone that says ‘Your signal’s being jammed.'”
Based on phone inquiries and Web site visits, AMBIT’s Crowley said many people apparently want a legal way to control wireless bad behavior.
“We tell pastors they can’t be bashful about asking their congregation to turn off their phones, because there’s nothing else available,” he said. “The system NaturalNano proposes would be a cost-effective alternative.”
But even though cell phones can be a nuisance, not all pastors seek a technical solution.
“I’ve had them go off during a service, although it’s rare,” said Tom Allen, pastor of the Bible Fellowship Church in Yardley, Pa., and an associate professor at Philadelphia Biblical University in Langhorne, Pa. “I use humor or just ignore it. Obviously, the person is embarrassed. One ring reminds everybody else to check their phones.
“I’ve never heard that it happened twice in one service.”
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.