In the field of technology, Moore’s law (which is more of an observation and not a physical law) states that in the field of microprocessors, the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. Some scientists, like Dr. Michio Kaku, feel that this “law” may be coming to an end. Nonetheless, advancements in computing technology, in all of its varied applications still seems to dazzle and amaze the general public. I’ve collected a few types of emerging technology that might prove to be very common and even revolutionary in the coming years.
1. 3-D Printing
For fans of the TV show Star Trek, the 3-D printer may seem like a crude predecessor of the Replicator, a device that not only synthesized food, air and water, but could also replicate spare parts for the Starship Enterprise. While we’re a long way off from the Replicator, 3-D printing technology could prove to be somewhat revolutionary in industry and R&D. And though there are several different methods of producing the final product, some functions remain the same. Essentially, the three-dimensional object is created using CAD (Computer Assisted Drafting) software and then the object is “sliced” into layers and the printer then adds layer upon layer until the final product is complete.
The technology has been around for a few decades but with computer technology increasing at amazing speeds since the late 80’s, 3-D printing is finally starting to become more mainstream. One report estimates that the industry will reach $5.2 billion in sales this year. This may be due in part to the wide uses of the technology for developing made to order parts and creating prototypes in such industries as automotive and aerospace, but also for more innovative uses like recreating fossils in paleontology and building artificial human organs.
In addition to it’s use in science, medicine and industry, it seems that consumers may now be able to afford at home printers for personal use. CNET reports that a manufacturer is going to be offering printers for home use that range from $349.00 to $1499.00. This opens the door to a whole new range of uses. In fact, it appears that this technology may have already taken another step forward. Engineers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science state they are now building objects with multiple, moving parts. 3-D printing technology seems poised to seriously change the world of objects as we know them.
One of the most exciting discoveries in chemistry and molecular science in the past decade or so is the discovery of a substance named graphene. Discovered by Andre Geim, a professor of physics at the University of Manchester, it is a substance that is literally only one atom thick. In essence, it is a two-dimensional material. It consists of a matrix of carbon atoms that posses some amazing properties:
Because of its unique structure, electrons could flow across the lattice unimpeded by other layers, moving with extraordinary speed and freedom. It can carry a thousand times more electricity than copper. In what Geim later called “the first eureka moment,” they demonstrated that graphene had a pronounced “field effect,” the response that some materials show when placed near an electric field, which allows scientists to control the conductivity. A field effect is one of the defining characteristics of silicon, used in computer chips, which suggested that graphene could serve as a replacement—something that computer makers had been seeking for years.
For a better explanation than I can give, take a look at the following video.
The potential applications for graphene seem to be nearly endless. It shows promise in electronics as a potential semi-conductor, in optical tech such as night vision, in construction of solar cells, electrical storage such as supercapacitors and lithium-ion batteries and even medical applications like tissue engineering and may even have properties to kill cancer cells.
For all it’s awesomeness (Yes, I think we can call it that) it is not without its drawbacks. In terms of its use as a conductor, graphene cannot essentially turn itself “off”. From the New Yorker article:
Semiconductors, such as silicon, are defined by their ability to turn on and off in the presence of an electric field; in logic chips, that switching process generates the ones and the zeros that are the language of computers. Graphene, a semi-metal, cannot be turned off.
This problem, referred to as “band gap” has slowed the progress of graphene applications as an electrical conductor. However, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have made great strides in solving that problem. Time will tell, but it seems that this substance could revolutionize technology in many different areas in some of the ways plastics have done in decades past.
3. Battery technology
Our efforts to reduce carbon emissions has resulted in a drive towards energy production and storage from batteries. Think of the electric car. In order for it to be practical, usage demands that it have the ability to run for hours with a self-contained energy producing unit, ie. the battery. In addition, our increasingly mobile society demands more and more wireless technology. Smart phones, laptops, tablets, etc all require batteries that last long enough to allow us to go throughout our day without constantly having to “charge up”. Even with better battery technology such as lithium-ion cells, we have a long way to go before we truly become an “unplugged” society. Manufacturers are constantly looking for better battery technology.
So what do we have currently and how might we improve upon the batteries we have? Most mobile devices use lithium-ion batteries and those have proven to be somewhat effective, but power demands are such that they take too long to charge and don’t hold charges long enough. Some folks working in the field think that sulfur could unlock new potential. Coating the cathodes with sulphur particles and glass, researchers found that it can improve the energy density of a lithium-ion battery tenfold. However, since the glass coating had to be very thin, it was prone to breakage. This is where our friend graphene (or more specifically graphene oxide) comes into play.
Just coating the sulfur in glass offered substantial improvements in durability, but the coating was still prone to rupture. That breakage issue had to be addressed. Researchers found that incorporating graphene oxide (mrGO) into the cathode added stability and made the nanoparticles less likely to rupture.
It’s possible that we may end up leaving lithium-ion batteries behind though, if new technology involving Aluminum-ion batteries proves to be better. Researchers at Standford University have
…developed an aluminum-ion battery that offers many significant advantages over the conventional lithium-ion batteries currently used in most electronic devices and today’s electric cars.
Lithium-ion batteries can be flammable, but Aluminum-ion batteries are not. This means a lighter battery because it does not require heat shielding. Aluminum-ion batteries also charge faster and this is especially important in electric cars. Current batteries can take quite a while to charge. Speeding up that process makes electric vehicles that much more desirable. Aluminum-ion batteries also last much longer than the Li-ion. The Li-ion lasts for about 1000 discharge cycles while Aluminum can go up to 7500 discharge cycles before needing to be replaced. From a manufacturing perspective, Aluminum is cheaper and more abundant and this could drive down the cost of batteries, making the devices that use them less expensive to the public. Finally, the environmental impact of using Aluminum has to be considered. Lithium is toxic and must be disposed of with care. Aluminum is non-toxic and can be recycled. Granted, for now the Standford Aluminum battery produces only about half of the voltage that the Li-ion does, but it seems likely that issue can be resolved.
4. Wireless power transmission
On the small scale, applications for this technology are being developed for mobile devices such as our smartphones and iPads/tablets. For many consumers, just the idea that they would no longer have to plug in their phone when the battery is nearly dead would be great news. Several companies are working on this now. Energous and Ossia, Ltd are each developing similar methods to transmit and receive energy through radio frequency. Microsoft is taking a different approach using lasers. The early signs seem to indicate that within a few years we could potentially throw our corded power chargers away (Or recycle them. Let’s think Green here.)
On a larger scale though, wireless power transmission or Inductive Power Transfer (IPT) while still a long way from practical application, has moved beyond what Nicola Tesla might have imagined (and tried to develop). The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has recently demonstrated what may be the groundwork for mid to long-range wireless power transmission that could change our current power grid. Future applications of this technology could affect many areas of modern life as demonstrated by the following video.
5. Quantum computing
I find the idea of quantum computing to be very exciting. What is it, you may ask? Well, this website helps to explain:
Quantum computing is essentially harnessing and exploiting the amazing laws of quantum mechanics to process information.
Now that may not really tell you much but the important take away is that quantum computing is fast. Really fast. As this article from Businessinsider.com states:
…regular computers have to solve one problem at a time in sequence, but quantum computers can solve multiple problems at the same time. That kind of speed [h]as the potential to revolutionize entire industries.
Speed is just one factor in quantum computing, but it’s real power may come from it’s efficiency at calculating and analyzing large amounts of data, such as weather forecasting and complicated scientific modeling like what is used in chemistry and genetics. Far more secure encryption would be possible as well.
So how far away is quantum computing? Well, Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is already in use at the Institute of Quantum Computing and Google seems to be paving the way for a fully functioning quantum computer (of sorts). Microsoft, not to be outdone, has a quantum research project of its own. Still, development is not without its obstacles. One of the largest is something called quantum decoherence. This issue might be solved however, by using one of natures hardest (and most beautiful) substances: Diamonds. According to this Time.com article, research being done with diamonds could potentially solve the decoherence problem.
Researchers at Ames Laboratory (a U.S. Department of Energy national lab) and Iowa State University, the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands say they’ve managed to build a solid-state quantum computer using a diamond to perform quantum calculations in a way that’s basically protected from environmental interference (and, thus, decoherence). They add that the results may be “an important step on the road towards a future, ultrafast quantum computer.”
It seems that it may only be a matter of time before we arrive at a new paradigm for computing technology. The ramifications of vast increases in computing power are mind-boggling. In fact, the widespread applications of all of the five technologies I’ve highlighted is almost too difficult to imagine.
While it may be true that Moore’s law will finally run its course, current and future technology may eventually make quantum leaps forward and propel humanity straight into the realms of science fiction.