Small Solutions for the World’s Biggest Challenges

By Catherine

Nano molecule structureWritten by Catherine Bolgar*

Nanotechnology is one of the biggest trends for the future, bringing new materials and new understanding of the world at the smallest scale: that of molecules and atoms.

Ten or 15 years ago, nanotechnology was seen as hype,” or a passing trend, says Andrei Khlobystov, professor of nanomaterials and director of the Nottingham University’s Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Centre in the U.K. “But as time goes on, nanotechnology is becoming much more a part of our life. It doesn’t go away because there are still a lot of opportunities, still huge scope to contribute to economy and society.”

Nanotechnology can contribute solutions to help address the grand challenges in the world—energy , health care, sustainability —he says.

Carbon nanotubes, for example, conduct electricity better than most metals, offering a way to replace metals, such as gold, platinum and palladium, which are in increasingly short supply. Their electronic properties make them ideal for use in transistors, while their size—80,000 times smaller than a human hair—opens new opportunities for miniaturization. The sum of such properties holds promise for smaller, more powerful, faster computers.

Carbon nanotubes also are extremely strong—and already used for certain components in cars—but light in weight. And they’re made of cheap, plentiful carbon. You could almost make them from trees and grass, Prof. Khlobystov says.

“It’s never just one thing that nanomaterials offer; it’s always a whole set of different properties,” he says. “That’s what makes nanotechnology so exciting.”

Some of the biggest advances have been in medicine, with early diagnostics and other tools. Already, nanomedicine is being used for blood and breath analysis and to precisely measure the quantity of medicine in the blood in order to adjust the amount a patient needs to take.

Tumors might be detected more quickly, via blood tests. “It’s possible to use nanoparticles to make imaging technology much better, to image tumors,” says Dave H.A. Blank, scientific director of MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “This is really growing fast.”

See Dave Blank’s fantastic TEDx Talk about nanotechnology:

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A new approach includes a lab-on-a-chip that has tiny channels etched on it, so that 1/1000th of a drop of blood is enough to analyze.

“We can measure how the liver or heart responds to medicine,” he says. “The advantage is you can easily go through the body,” because of the small size.

In three or four years, a nanopill, containing a complete laboratory, could look for colon cancer. It would pump in material from the colon and could measure if there’s cancer, whether it’s at an early stage, and send information to a smart phone. The pill itself would be made of organic materials, and the electronic parts are silicon—which is just sand, Prof. Blank says, so there’s no damage to the body or the environment. “I expect that in five years there will be regulations that everyone take such a pill,” he adds.

An organ-on-a-chip is the next goal. “You take tissue from the lung, grow it and put it on the lab-on-a-chip or organ-on-a-chip,” Prof. Blank says. “You can look at oxygen behavior in the lung or blood in the liver or how the heart muscle responds to electric impulses. We can watch how cells communicate with each other.”

Nanotechnology also can make new materials. One of the most exciting is graphene, which is a two-dimensional substance made up of a single layer of carbon atoms. It’s flexible, durable and an excellent conductor of electricity.

Rubber bands coated with graphene could be used in medicine as cheap, flexible sensors. Graphene ribbons could act as semiconductors. Graphene and carbon nanotubes could lead to mobile phones so tiny and flexible they could be printed on clothing. Graphene oxide could reinforce concrete or be applied like paint to stop corrosion.

Why are we only now starting to discover so many new properties in something as common as carbon?

One reason is that matter at an atomic level has its own rules, which until recently were unknown to us. The discovery of atoms came from observations about them in large numbers, not as individuals. Advances in equipment—such as electron microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy or atomic force microscopy—allowed researchers to see actual atoms, which are smaller than the wavelength of light .

Now we find that certain things may not be as we thought,” Prof. Khlobystov says. We once thought that a piece of gold was made of gold atoms and that all those atoms were the same. “They are the same if you look on the macroscopic level,” he says. “But as you start zooming in, you see that not all the atoms are the same. And there are defects, edges and faults.”

Beyond how atoms look is how they act on an individual level. “When you make things smaller, new physics and new properties kick in,” Prof. Khlobystov says.

The next challenge is to control chemical reactions between individual atoms, using carbon nanotubes as tiny test tubes. “They can produce new chemical products in a sustainable way and can produce entirely new materials,” he says.

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Stronger, Lighter, Cheaper

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*
NanomaterialIndustrial materials involve trade-offs. Desirable qualities tend to come with undesirable flip sides. Strength, for example, tends to come at the expense of ductility, or the ability to stretch without breaking. So the stronger something is, the more it’s likely—ironically—that when it does fail, it fails completely.

What if you could have both high strength and ductility? This is likely to happen, thanks to breakthroughs in new materials, many of which involve building the materials in innovative ways at the atomic level.

A microscopic view of metals would show them as made up of grains. Stronger materials have smaller grains, and more ductile materials have larger grains, explains Yuntian Zhu, professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University in the U.S. However, if you make an entire part with small grains for high strength, it might fail catastrophically under stress.

When you make any structure, you want at least 5% ductility. The more ductility, the safer it is. But the downside is that the strength comes down,” he says.

Dr. Zhu found that by forming steel with larger grains inside and gradually moving to smaller grains at the surface, the result has both strength and ductility. This gradient structure is found in nature, he says, for example in plants and bones.

Near the surface, it’s harder. As you go deeper it gets softer,” Dr. Zhu says. “Nature just puts raw materials where they’re needed most. It minimizes the material cost. In nature, that proves useful.”

Using a gradient structure in steel could extend the lives of bridges, ships and oil pipelines, for instance.

Hardening steel by working it is another technique to make steel that’s both strong and ductile. Twinning-induced plasticity—or TWIP—steel is strengthened by twisting, deforming, bending, flattening or hammering it. At Brown University, researchers twisted cylinders of TWIP steel to deform the molecules on the surface. The molecules in the center remained unaffected, providing the flexibility, while the surface got harder, providing more strength.

Usually when something is strong, it’s also heavy. What if you could have both strength and lightness?

Nicholas X. Fang, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed a foam material that can withstand a weight 10,000 times greater than its own.

“It’s as light as aerogel, yet as stiff as a hammer,” he says. Much of the space between the structures is void, which is why the material is so light.

The material uses nanotubes or nanowires a quarter of the size of a human hair to form a network or structure that takes away the load. “Each of the nanotubes under the load are under compression or a stress state,” Dr. Fang says. “But they turn out to be quite resilient. In the lab, we compress the samples to 60% of their original size.”

Dr. Fang is contemplating applications for this new material. The material could absorb impact while reducing weight, for example, in a tennis racket that’s lighter than aluminum alloy, yet able to deliver similar strength against a bouncing ball.

It could be important for microstructures in batteries,” he adds. Batteries receive a lot of shock when charging, which causes the structure to suddenly expand—and corrode. “If we could use this material in a battery, we could solve the challenge of quick charging,” he says.

Satellites also could benefit from a material that’s very lightweight, to reduce the payload, yet able to withstand shocks.

Nanowires in three-dimensional structures also are being explored by researchers at the University of California, Davis. By combining atoms of semiconductor materials—such as gallium arsenide, gallium nitride or indium phosphide—into nanowires that form structures on top of silicon surfaces, they hope to create a new generation of fast electronic and photonic devices.

The nanowire transistors could be used to make sensors that can withstand high temperatures and are easier to cool.

polymer surfaceSomething everybody wants to be strong yet shatterproof is their smartphone screen. Researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio have come up with a transparent layer of electrodes on a polymer surface that could stand up to repeatedly having adhesive tape peeled off and retain its shape after being bent a thousand times. The new film may be cheaper to make than the coatings of indium tin oxide now used on smartphone screens.

In fact, in a number of cases, the materials or processes themselves aren’t necessarily expensive, which makes them likely to be adopted relatively quickly.

It’s actually quite easy,” says Dr. Zhu about making steel with a gradient structure. “The only thing is, can we do it in an industrial way or develop a technology to do it?” The cost is likely to be very low, and some in industry already are trying it.

“It might take a few years for widespread adoption,” he says.

The super-strong foam material developed by Dr. Fang isn’t expensive, but the manufacturing process is—at least for now. Only a few centimeters of the material can be made, which is a limitation of the printing process, not the material itself, Dr. Fang says. “Now it’s important to connect the dots to make it into a larger format at lower cost.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

A Chronicle of Futures Foretold

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball to warn us when the next crisis will happen?

Buffalo on Wall Street

While it isn’t a crystal ball, Swiss university ETH Zurich has developed a scientific platform to predict when bubbles develop. Didier Sornette, professor of entrepreneurial risks at ETH Zurich, created the university’s Financial Crisis Observatory in 2008 as a reaction to the global financial crisis.

I became very angry about what I read that predicting such a crisis wasn’t possible,” he says. “We knew a crisis was coming. We knew this impression of great wealth and mastering of the economy was an illusion.”

Dr. Sornette notes that he doesn’t predict the crash. “We diagnose the bubble before the end, when a crash confirms it existed,” he says.

Normal up-and-down cycles aren’t the same as the booms and busts of bubbles. The existence—or nonexistence—of bubbles ends up in arguments about what is normal vs. abnormal, compared with history, price-equity ratios or an excessive growth rate of the stock market.

What should the normal growth rate be: 5%, 15%, 20%? What could justify that last year the return was 20%? Was it irrational or was it new technology?” Dr. Sornette says. “People find reasons that justify the observed price.”

Rather than pick a number, Dr. Sornette’s model looks for superexponential growth. Regular growth is exponential because of the effects of compounding. With superexponential growth, the growth rate itself is growing.

The bubble is when rate of return accelerates,” he says. “It’s a positive feedback loop. In normal circumstances, the higher the price, the lower the demand. In a bubble, the higher the price, the larger the demand and therefore there’s a larger subsequent growth rate. It’s due to a crowd effect, or herding, because it’s so tempting to imitate the others and to run after the bonanza of the time.”

By coming up with a scientific model with verifiable metrics, Dr. Sornette hopes the resulting evidence will help the “is-it-a-bubble-or-not” debate move from being philosophical or political to being scientific. Similarly, it wasn’t until the existence of the ozone hole was scientifically proven that an international agreement to ban chlorofluorocarbons was adopted.

William White, who was a member of the executive committee of the Bank for International Settlements, and some of his BIS colleagues warned that a crisis was about to hit in 2007.

It seems what we have to focus on is the systemic fragilities that are building up in the economy, as opposed to looking for any trigger point,” he says. “My way of looking at it is increasingly to see the economy as a complex adaptive system. It shares the characteristics of other complex adaptive systems: we know they are inherently vulnerable to crises and that crises occur on regular basis, though the literature says big crises come infrequently but little crises come frequently. In something as complex as the international financial system, things are going to go wrong.”

Cyclical downturns are “events that clear out the system,” he says. “We probably have had 25 years of too little tolerance for downturns. Every time one threatened or happened, we just threw huge amounts of monetary intervention and expansion at it.”

Economic Bubble

The longer bubbles persist and the larger they are, the more likely they are to spread into other sectors. “It’s because of the wealth effect,” Dr. Sornette says. “During a bubble everybody feels rich.”

This makes it hard to stop bubbles. People love them while they’re inflating, and policy makers don’t want to declare an end to the party. One goal of scientifically declaring the existence of a bubble is to force the hand of policy makers to take actions that will deflate or plateau the bubble before it expands to the point of triggering a big, messy crisis.

Financial crises are particularly difficult because the fears of sudden failures can turn into a sort of reverse bubble, with losses feeding new losses. In addition, “a bank that is in bad shape finds it difficult to raise new equity and so is reluctant to make loans, which hurts the real economy,” says Paul Klemperer, economics professor at Oxford University in the U.K.

To remedy this, contingent convertible bonds were designed so that, when things go bad for a bank, they turn into shares or equity. The question is, “‘when does the conversion happen?’ In practice, when regulators say so,” Dr. Klemperer says. “Can we trust regulators to say so in time? We need these bonds to convert automatically, so regulators have to take action to stop conversion, not start it.”

He and co-authors Jeremy Bulow, professor of economics at Stanford University, and Jacob Goldfield, a former senior partner at Goldman Sachs, have proposed a new form of hybrid capital for banks, equity recourse notes, which automatically convert debt into equity when a bank loses market capitalization.

For Dr. Sornette, diagnosing bubbles with scientific metrics is another way to automatically help regulators and policy makers act: “They will do the right thing, if they’re forced to by the scientific evidence.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.



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