Fundamentally, technologies are supposed to improve life. That doesn’t mean all of them succeed but these following emerging technologies represent a glimpse of progress in the world.
Encapsulating a potentially limitless array of emerging and existing technologies, biomimicry involves studying and then emulating the materials and processes of nature to create more sustainable and preferably zero-waste synthetic technologies.
In a recent example from March, MIT professor Daniel Nocera, Ph.D reported at a meeting of the American Chemical Society that he has created the first practical artificial leaf. This playing-card sized “leaf” doesn’t resemble the real thing in its shape or materials, but does mimic photosynthesis to produce hydrogen and oxygen gasses out of water and sunlight. Those gasses would be stored in a fuel cell to provide power. It’s estimated that in this way, one gallon of water with sunlight could power a single house for a day. Nocera claims his invention is 10 times as efficient at photosynthesis as a real leaf and has signed with the Tata Group to develop mass produced systems. They claim the technology could help bring power to 3 billion people.
This short-range wireless technology allows communication between an initiator (smartphone) and a passive target, such as a payment kiosk, to exchange information within a distance of 4 cm or less. Many know by now that near field communication (NFC) technology exists in some smartphones already (like the Samsung Nexus S) and that initial trials of paying for transactions with NFC mobile phones are underway. Nokia is using NFC tags to unlock levels in the exclusive Angry Birds Magic game.
So far, NFC may not be blowing many minds or moving us any closer to a technological paradise. But I predict that NFC will become a “me too” technology in cell phones that carriers and phone-slingers alike will want to include in order to appear state of the art. Once a critical mass of installed NFC devices goes online, NFC transactions will permeate our everyday lives when paying for groceries, movie tickets, bus fare, etc.; pairing Bluetooth devices; downloading info from smart posters or billboards; peer-to-peer exchanges; and more. This may lead to greater stress about losing your mobile, but the added convenience means fewer trips to the ATM, fewer flyers littering our streets, and no need for vending machine change or business cards.
Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion
Although its practical application is mostly limited to tropical regions, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) has the potential to output more energy than other ocean based options, such as wave power. OTEC captures energy from the temperature difference between warm surface water the cold, deeper ocean water. Capturing cycle types differ, but OTEC holds the greatest promise in areas with the greatest water temperature differential. For example, OTEC plants in Hawaii could produce 15% more watts than the average OTEC plants. Lockheed Martin has a 10-MW OTEC system in the works for Hawaii to open in 2012-2013.
Beyond energy production, OTEC technology can also work symbiotically with tied-in systems of agriculture, aquaculture, hydrogen production, water desalination, and trace mineral extraction to benefit local communities.
Just as computers have broken down the barriers of entry for the production and distribution of media such as books, music and video, 3D printing will breakdown the barriers of entry for producing certain material goods. 3D printing creates objects by successively layering material, and it’s generally easier, faster, and more affordable than other types of additive manufacturing.
New material mixtures are being developed for the technology and have lead to wonders such as a super strong and light bicycle made from parts 3D printed from a nylon-and-metal powder. Printouts of biological tissue may soon lead to the printability of transplantable organs.
Neural Stem Cells
In late April, a group of California researchers reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the discovery of a process to procure long-term, self-renewing, primitive neural precursor cells from human embryonic stem cells. Supposedly the scientists can then use these new neural cells to create different kinds of neurons without a greater risk of resulting tumors. A few applications for this breakthrough include creating neurons for neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, or eye related neurons lost to different diseases such as glaucoma.
UC San Diego professor Kang Zhang, MD, PhD anticipates that this new cell process will also lead to further stem cell breakthroughs, including deriving neural stem cells and other types of stem cell from mature cells rather than embryonic cells, which could then become organ, muscle, or other kinds of cells.
Vapor Compression Distiller
Proud citizens of the Colbert Nation may remember a segment on The Colbert Report way back on March 22, 2008 about a guy who invented a machine that purifies any water source, even when contaminated with sweet, spicy, and chili flavored Doritos. They likely don’t remember that man was named Dean Kamen, or know that his company DEKA Research holds more than 440 patents.
With 50% of human disease resulting from water-borne pathogens and around 1.1 billion people without access to safe water, Kamen invented his vapor compression distiller with great intentions for helping people. Called the Slingshot, the water purifier produces potable distilled water from any source using no filters, membranes, chemicals, or any disposables. Its purification method may not break much ground, but its compact size and low electricity demand make it unique. Unfortunately, the Slingshot is still not in production, but its enormous promise lives on.