For researchers there's nothing like working on what could be the next big thing. But the annals of technology development are littered with anticipated innovations that failed to pan out or failed to live up to commercial expectations.
When evaluating technology trends, Adam Gordon, a so-called strategic foresight specialist and the author of "Future Savvy," cautions business leaders to beware of nearsighted experts. Heavily invested in the current technology, experts can be the last ones to see impending changes. Good forecasts, Gordon adds, consider the "frictional resistance of the status quo" and how this resistance might be overcome.
None of this makes the latest innovations and discoveries any less exciting. As is happening now with graphene -- and as happened with carbon nanotubes before it -- when a new material is discovered there's a shake-out period when scientists test all of the potential applications before viable commercial uses settle out. And as often as the press pits new technologies against one another -- as is the case with synthetic biologists splicing genes into bacteria or algae or yeast -- it's not so much a competition but the scientific process of determining what approach works best for a given application.
Taking such caveats into consideration, IndustryWeek offers five of the latest technology developments, all of which feature commercial products or viable prototypes, that promise to transform industry and our lives.
From nature, more or less
Synthetic biology builds on decades of genetic engineering work to create biological systems not found in nature. Synthetic Genomics, the company led by famous geneticist Craig Venter, made headlines last year when it used biological engineering techniques to create the world's first organism (one of the simplest bacteria) with completely man-made DNA. Such capabilities have provoked ethical concerns and fears of environmental damage or dangerous microbes, and millions of dollars in venture-capital investments.
"Yeast and a lot of different organisms are more genetically tractable today than they were even a few years ago," says Rich Burlingame, vice president of R&D for Allylix. The company has introduced genes into yeast strains that, through proprietary fermentation processes, make terpene compounds for use as flavors, fragrances, anti-oxidants and other applications.
Two of its first products are nookatone and valencene, fragrance and flavor essences derived from grapefruit and oranges, respectively. The synthetic versions offer more consistent quality and availability compared to naturally extracted compounds, which can vary based on the weather. A reliable and cheaper supply could expand their use in a variety of end products. Nookatone, for example, may be used to develop a better smelling insect repellent.
"The technical barriers for bringing a product to market are much lower if you have a higher value product," adds Burlingame. "If you're making something that sells for $1,000 per pound, you don't need as efficient a process as something that sells for $1 per pound."
From laboratory to market in record time
A revolutionary material that promises to transform every facet of our lives comes along once a decade or so. Not many years after scientists at the University of Manchester (UK) first produced graphene in 2004 -- for which they won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics -- research into production methods and potential applications has exploded.
Graphene refers to a single layer of carbon atoms packed together by strong covalent bonds into a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice. It's basically a carbon nanotube that's been unzipped and laid flat. Exceptionally thin, it is 200 times stronger than steel and an exceptional conductor of heat, electricity and light.
Current research is focused on how to produce graphene cost effectively and in sufficient quantities for both testing and commercial uses. Potential applications run the gamut from stronger and lighter composites to ultra-small transistors, printed electronics, shielding, batteries and super-capacitors, fuel cells, stronger and lighter plastics, transparent coatings, flexible displays -- and the list goes on.
"A lot of the hype is because there's so much research going on now for every application," says Ron Beech, director of sales and marketing for Angstron Materials, Dayton, Ohio. "People will try 100,000 different applications. Most won't work out or won't be practical, but some will."
Focused on intellectual-property development, Angstrom and its founder, Bor Jang, have filed over 50 patents that focus on graphene production as well as specific applications. The company also sells nano graphene platelets, which have the consistency of flour, in a variety of thicknesses.
Much of the current graphene research revolves around the ideal methods and proportions to disperse it within a given material, possibly in conjunction with carbon nanotubes, to achieve the optimum properties. For example, leveraging its electrical conductivity, one of Angstron's customers has incorporated graphene into actuator and sensing components.
Smart Medical Devices
From science fiction to your doctor's office
In the movie "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," Luke Skywalker has his hand cut off in a light saber duel with Darth Vader. A few scenes later a droid attaches a bionic prosthesis, Luke flexes it a bit and he's good to go. Such machine and neural tissue interfaces -- demonstrated by several research teams working on prototype prosthetic devices, including robotic hands -- are only one area where bioengineering advancements will transform the medical device industry.
"These developments can seem like science fiction, but the technology in medical devices and the sophistication of instrumentation and computing are at a stage where this will start happening, and it already has," says Atam Dhawan, an electrical engineering professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and chair of the IEEE emerging technology committee.
In addition to neuroscience developments, he points to new optical imaging technologies and the ability of point-of-care devices to test, monitor, transmit and analyze real-time patient data. Combined with genetic information, such data will further personalize medical treatment, enabling the analysis of reams of physiological information as well as environmental and lifestyle factors.
"There will be an innovative revolution in small, wearable and portable devices that patients can use without much technical supervision, and which automatically connect to their smart phones via Bluetooth connections to a server," Dhawan predicts. Not only will the collection and analysis of such data support individual medical therapies and improve patient access to treatment through telemedicine, it could contribute to a radical improvement in global health care by significantly improving prevention knowledge and practices, as well as treatment.
Medical technology innovations are moving forward faster than the ability of regulatory bodies to review and approve new devices. The U.S. Congress is considering no fewer than 10 bills designed to revamp the Food and Drug Administration's medical-device review processes. The fear is that if the FDA's processes are not modified, the bulk of new technology development and testing could move to countries where regulations are less stringent, taking expertise and jobs with it.
The PowerTrain Revolution
From the test track to your garage
With the number of passenger cars on the roads projected to exceed 2 billion by 2050, a combination of new powertrain technologies will be required to reduce carbon emissions, stabilize atmospheric CO2, and reduce petroleum dependence. The primary alternatives to internal combustion engines include better batteries that can power longer driving ranges, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. The R&D developments that keep emerging from this race to bring next generation powertrains to market will spin off a host of new technologies with a broad impact far beyond the global automobile industry.
The past 12 months have marked the long-awaited launch of the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, as well as the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the $95,000-plus Fisker Karma in mid-October. While the projected year-end sales of the Volt at 10,000 units, and the Leaf at around 25,000 units worldwide, are a small fraction of the global vehicle market, their introduction has further spurred consumer interest in low-emission vehicles first sparked by the Toyota Prius.
An in-depth review of battery, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell technology by McKinsey & Co. projects that by 2030 such cars will be comparatively priced to internal combustion engine vehicles without the government tax credits now spurring purchases. Although the U.S. government has recently shifted funding away from hydrogen-fuel-cell technology, Japan and some European countries remain committed to building the infrastructure required for this zero-emission technology to compete with gasoline and electrics. Hydrogen fuel cells are already being used in commercial fleets, including buses and forklifts, and the technology continues to get better. Annual sales for Plug Power, a fuel cell maker catering to the North American material handling market, are expected to double for the fourth year in a row.
Beyond incremental improvements in conventional lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, watch for super-capacitors and other new energy storage technologies that use the latest materials -- such as graphene -- to dramatically increase energy storage density and extend the range of electric vehicles.
From bit to qubit
The hype and hope around quantum computing that has ebbed and flowed since the idea was first proposed in the early 1980s may finally be coming to fruition. Quantum computers, the theory goes, could exploit the strange properties of quantum mechanics to simultaneously perform massive iterations of certain types of calculations.
Very briefly, conventional computers use 0s and 1s to store information. In quantum computing a quantum bit or qubit representing a particle, such as an electron, can be described in two states, spin up or spin down, each representing a 0 or 1. At the same time it also exists in both of these and all possible states, known as quantum superpositions, thereby representing both 0 and 1 simultaneously.
Not going any further into the physics or the scientific debate over what a quantum computer is and should be capable of, this past spring a company based in Burnaby, British Columbia, known as D-Wave announced the commercial availability of a quantum computer with a 128-qubit chipset. The processor uses a form of quantum computing known as quantum annealing to solve problems related to machine learning and artificial intelligence.
"The chip is a generator of probability distributions that you can tune as a user," explains Geordie Rose, D-Wave founder and CTO. D-Wave solved the technical problems of noise and heat -- two of the main challenges for those trying to build quantum computers -- by super-cooling the chip inside a cryogenic system within a 10-square-meter shielded room.
In late May D-Wave announced the sale of its first quantum computer system and a partnership agreement with Lockheed Martin. The aerospace and defense contractor is currently installing the unit and expects it to be operational by early 2012. Addressing some of its most pressing needs, according to a company spokesperson, the company plans to use the large-scale computing capabilities to reduce the labor and time required for the verification and validation testing (V&V) of complex systems.
"We believe quantum computing can significantly reduce V&V costs and generate other savings in cost avoidance and reduced schedule delays," says the spokesperson. Examples include the complex control systems for ships and aircraft that must perform flawlessly.