by John J. Fanning
While current reports indicate that the economy is improving, there is still a lot of people out of work today and many of them have a great deal of education. While economists predict that employment will pick up in 2011, I thought we would take a look at some emerging technologies that hold great promise not only for the creation of jobs but for the creation of a whole new world.
Just last month, for example, scientists at MIT’s Nocera Lab succeeded in creating what is, for all practical purposes, an artificial leaf. The device, which is made of silicone, catalysts and electronic components, is about the size of a typical playing card.
What makes this artificial leaf valuable is its ability to split water into two components, hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen removed from the water can be stored in a fuel cell and used later for the generation of electricity. It is believed that just one of these new devices, suspended in a gallon of water, will have the ability to furnish the electrical needs of a small home.
Such technology has the potential for powering buildings, vehicles and almost anything else that can operate using electrical energy. Obviously, this amazing manmade leaf has the potential to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But more than that, the technology also has the ability to spawn hundreds of new devices and modify existing systems, which would result in creation of both new entrepreneurs as well as thousands of workers.
Technically, this is not the first artificial leaf to be developed. Over ten years ago, John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado developed an artificial leaf made of rare earth metals. Turner’s device was costly to produce and was highly unstable. The device developed by the MIT team uses inexpen-
sive materials that are readily available and can use water coming from any source. Thus far, the device has operated over extended periods of time in a laboratory without decreasing performance.
Comprised of silicone and an electrode, when water and solar produced electricity is directed through the electrode and catalysts of nickel or cobalt, hydrogen and oxygen molecules in the water are separated. The stored hydrogen can be used to continue powering devices when sunlight is no longer available.
Next for researchers will be to increase efficiency and energy output of these leaves so they can be mass-produced and used in a variety of green technologies.
Also last month, another scientific breakthrough was announced by scientists at IBM Research who discovered a new type of nanoparticle that attacks and kills cells comprising Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) bacteria. MRSA is an infection caused by a strain of staph bacteria that is highly resistant to most antibiotics.
The nanoparticles discovered at IBM ignore all other cells and zero in on the cells within the MRSA bacteria. Commercially produced, these nanoparticles can be injected into patients or applied topically to an infected area on a patient to kill MRSA. And because the nanoparticles are biodegradable and do not linger in the environment, they
pose no danger in affecting other organisms and resistance to them is – dare I say, futile?
Nanotechnology involves the alteration of mater at the atomic and molecular level. In a sense, it is Alchemy. Scientists around the world have been experimenting with nanotechnology to both unlock the secrets of and alter the composition of matter. Over five years ago, Kraft Foods was experimenting on the development of nanotech beverages that could change flavoring and coloring in accordance with a users biological state. If you just finished a workout, your favorite beverage could be a bright red. If you were chilling in front of the television, it might be dark blue.
Nanotechnology has also been deployed to increase the efficiency of solar panels, produce barnacle resistant paints for the bottom of ships and change food product structure. A most encouraging use of the technology will come in the biomedical field when miniscule devices are deployed to attack and devour the cells of harmful bacteria, arterial blockages and a host of other maladies. Nanotechnology can also be used to alter food crops so that they can withstand climate change and increase harvests.
Nanotechnology can make skis move faster down the slope and make the color of your car change in accordance with daylight. There are literally so many applications that can come from nanotechnology that it boggles the imagination. And along with each of these applications come careers and jobs
that will appear in the future.
This month, scientists at Penn State University will publish a paper in the journal “Nature Materials” announcing discovery of a new way to understand the structure of proteins, minerals and polymers. This research will pave the way for development of new ferroelectric and ferromagnetic materials, leading to next generation computers and other technology.
Prior to this discovery, scientists and engineers had only five types of symmetries to use for creating patterns and understanding the structure of materials. Four of those types – rotation, inversion, rotation-inversion and translation, have been known for thousands of years. The fifth type, time reversal, was discovered over 50 years ago.
The Penn State researchers have defined a sixth way called, rotation reversal, which will increase the known ways of combining crystalline materials from today’s 1,651 to more than 17,500.
In the very near future, humans will be able to use types of glass, polymers and ceramics that have never before existed. New materials will be created with thousands or millions of applications, opening the door to new industries and creating thousands of new jobs.
I could go on relating other breakthroughs that have come in the past two months but I think you get the point. As bad as the past few years have been for most Americans who are just trying to make a living, the world of science and engineering continues to provide a bright and promising future for engineers and anyone else who is prepared to meet the future. In the same way that science is “reinventing” the way we treat illness or look at matter, people have to reinvent themselves to welcome new opportunities that are brought about by these technological advances.
What this means is that those thousands of Americans who went back to community colleges and universities these past few years to gain new skills or stay current with technological advancement will prosper. And those who sat around all day waiting for their employer to call can plan on sitting around a lot longer.
We live in a rapidly changing world today. And in today’s world the skills that people possess typically become obsolete long before they reach retirement age. The average factory worker today is producing a product that will be obsolete in less than three years. A building engineer is working with environmental controls, software and other technology that will be obsolete in less than two years.
Entrepreneurs who have not shaped and changed their business models to keep pace with the new economy that has arisen will continue to perish. A new business paradigm has emerged that demands business owners operate diverse enterprises with the flexibility to rapidly adapt to and adopt change. Today, an entrepreneur’s most valuable asset is the knowledge they and their staff possess about the technology under development that will alter the industry they serve. The moment such insight falters or fades, the business begins an inevitable spiral into ruin.
I began this column by describing three scientific breakthroughs with the potential to change the world. All three of those breakthroughs came within the last thirty days of my writing these words. The next thirty days will see more scientific breakthroughs that will further change and alter our lives. Because new technology increases the speed of developing newer technology – everything is coming faster and faster.
All that we know or thought we knew is in a state of change and such change is increasing in speed at an exponential rate.
That being said, the choice for everyone who wishes to remain a part of an advanced society is clear. You can either commit to continuing your education throughout your career so as to be current with new technology and equipped to adopt that technology or you can deliver pizza.