For this year’s Edge Question “What will change everything?” Eric Drexler’s answer is simultaneously depressing and heartening:
In the bland words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “only in the case of essentially complete elimination of emissions can the atmospheric concentration of CO2 ultimately be stabilised at a constant [far higher!] level.” This heroic feat would require new technologies and the replacement of today’s installed infrastructure for power generation, transportation, and manufacturing. This seems impossible. In the real world, Asia is industrializing, most new power plants burn coal, and emissions are accelerating, increasing the rate of increase of the problem.
Drexler dismisses the “magic nanotechnology” trope and suggests what technological developments could do for us:
According to fiction and pop culture, it seems that all tiny machines are robots made of diamond, and they’re dangerous magic — smart and able to do almost anything for us, but apt to swarm and multiply and maybe eat everything, probably including your socks.
A solar array area, that if aggregated, would fit in a corner of Texas, could generate 3 terawatts. In the course of 10 years, 3 terawatts would provide enough energy remove all the excess carbon the human race has added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began. So far as carbon emissions are concerned, this would fix the problem.
Drexler has further discussion of his essay on his blog, Metamodern.
[at Edge.org with further comment at Drexler’s blog][image from ktylerconk on flickr]
Via the blog Responsible Nanotechnology, Mike Treder, Executive Director of the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology presents his thoughts on the state of the emerging science of nanotech, five year’s since the centre’s creation. He begins by highlighting the original positions made by CRN in 2003:
“Early in 2003, we published the following foundational statements that summarized CRN’s basic positions:
The following post then analyses each of these in turn, comparing things now in 2008 to how it was then back in 2003. There’s been a lot of progress in the field since then but they believe their assumptions remain true. As new ways to manipulate matter at the nanoscale are discovered, potential beneficial uses and dangers will increase exponentially. Theodore Judson’s forthcoming novel ‘The Martian General’s Daughter’ for instance, has a Roman-like empire collapsing because a nanotechnology plague is destroying the metal inside computers and equipment.
[DNA tetrahedron created by Andrew J. Turberfield, Department of Physics, University of Oxford. Image via Nanorex, Inc.]
Two good examples of nanotechnology in action today from Science Daily. The first comes in the field of solar technology. There are two main forms of solar nanotech: thin films of nanoparticles like titanium oxide doped with nitrogen, and so-called ‘quantum dots’, tiny semiconducting crystals that absorb the energy from light to release conducting electrons. Scientists from California, Mexico and China have shown that both methods can be combined into one material that performs better together than either method alone!
The second article discusses LED lights, which use far less energy than even energy-saving flourescent bulbs. However, whilst LEDs work great for smaller uses like book-lights, computers or mobile phones, they aren’t bright enough to light a room. The method to improve this is to make thousands of tiny holes on the bulb itself, allowing more light to escape the LED. Whilst before this process has been extremely time and money intensive, using nanotechnology lithography to imprint the holes makes the process far cheaper – which could lead to a massive growth in usage of LEDs in our homes and gadgets.
EDIT: As Larry mentions in the comments, there’s also been great progress making solar antennas using nanoscale spirals imprinted onto the material. This method could be printed on flexible materials and potentially is as much as 80% Efficient. Thanks for the heads up Larry!
[via Science Daily, image via NIST]
Usually, heat and electric conductivity go hand in hand. Now, thanks to the emerging nanostructure technology movement, scientists think they can separate these two.
“Thermoelectric devices are based on the fact that when certain materials are heated, they generate a significant electrical voltage. Conversely, when a voltage is applied to them, they become hotter on one side, and colder on the other. The process works with a variety of materials, and especially well with semiconductors — the materials from which computer chips are made.”
Previously thermoelectric devices were far too inefficient to be of use. But by adding nanoscale structures a few billionths of a metre across, the heat conductivity of a material can be disrupted whilst the electricity passes through fine, ramping the efficiency up massively. Imagine a computer chip that doesn’t get heated as it works, or a solar cell that uses heat as well as light to generate electricity. Thermo electrics are already starting to get efficient enough to cool your car seat – how soon before they start to be used in the growing low energy pc market?
[via ScienceDaily, image from Amazon.com ]