The path to disruptive science, technology, and industry is often blocked by the need for better materials — and better ways of combining and configuring different materials. We will take a look at a few recent breakthroughs in the making, combining, and configuring of materials — specifically metals.
A fascinating method for using nanotechnology + electricity to create “laminated metals” is providing corrosion-resistant materials for ocean applications — such as oil rigs, ships, and machines and parts exposed to other corrosive and metal-toxic environments.
… Modumetal uses nanotechnology — manipulation of matter at the molecular level — to micromanage at a very small scale to better control the conditions and substances through which electroplating occurs. Basically, the company grows metal on a surface in a way that makes it easier to shape and tinker with the material’s characteristics. Lomasney says it’s similar to how nature controls the environment related to a tree’s growth— sunlight, soil, location, temperature—and then creates a tree that is a product those conditions.
… The process creates a metal that is grown layer-by-layer. The different ways to grow the layers creates variety in the metal’s properties and shape. Lomasney says to think about the resulting material like plywood, but the plies, or pieces, are created at the nanotech level. __ Metal Layering by Nanotechnology
An interesting new breakthrough process to make metal parts more resistant to wear, ultra-fast boriding, is discussed by Brian Westenhaus:
Because boron is supplied so quickly, the layers produced by ultra-fast boriding are more uniform and dense than the results of conventional pack-boriding.
Not only is ultra-fast boriding faster, but it creates tougher layers than any existing option for surface hardening, including the use of carbon or nitrogen in place of boron.
A thicker protective layer is unlikely to crack or come loose, so it increases the lifetime of metal pieces, making them more reliable in the long term. Machines that last longer and that require less maintenance for their parts could ultimately be much more profitable.
Ultra-fast boriding is another technology that should enable machines and metal parts to survive much longer in harsh environments.
Speaking of harsh environments, few environments are harsher than the environment of outer space, where heat/cold, radiation, and micro-meteorites play demolition derby with space habitats. But now, a self-healing material may soon allow space-dwellers to sleep more soundly in their bed-bags.
Orbiting the Earth is a bit like living in a minefield, with millions of tiny flecks of space junk whizzing about at thousands of miles per hour. If a rice-sized pellet whacked into the International Space Station, it could pack the punch of a hand grenade, causing precious oxygen to seep into space.
So materials scientists have developed a clever fix that could buy astronauts the time they need to fully repair a breach: A “self healing” material, consisting of a reactive liquid sandwiched between two layers of a solid polymer. When the researchers shot a bullet through the material (shown in the video below), the liquid reacted with oxygen in the air to form a solid plug in less than a second.
Siemens is investing in a new 3D-printing / additive manufacturing process that should make better nickel – superalloy components for gas turbines, faster and more economically. Siemens is not the only industrial giant to dive into 3D printing. GE is only one of the others to see the possibilities.
Another new development in 3D printing is an MIT printer that is capable of printing in 10 different materials at one time!
The quest for better electronic, magnetic, optical, and catalytic materials may be closer to realisation thanks to a new nano-process of substitutional doping of materials, using silver, gold, and other types of nanocrystals.
… we [Christopher Murray and colleagues] show that gold nanocrystals act as substitutional dopants in superlattices of cadmium selenide or lead selenide nanocrystals when the size of the gold nanocrystal is very close to that of the host. The gold nanocrystals occupy random positions in the superlattice and their density is readily and widely controllable, analogous to the case of atomic doping, but here through nanocrystal self-assembly. We also show that the electronic properties of the superlattices are highly tunable and strongly affected by the presence and density of the gold nanocrystal dopants. The conductivity of lead selenide films, for example, can be manipulated over at least six orders of magnitude by the addition of gold nanocrystals and is explained by a percolation model. As this process relies on the self-assembly of uniform nanocrystals, it can be generally applied to assemble a wide variety of nanocrystal-doped structures for electronic, optical, magnetic, and catalytic materials.
The above process is analogous to chemical doping of semi-conductors and other materials, except using nanocrystals rather than individual atoms.
Now, to pitfalls in forecasting the future. Two recent articles in Brian Wang’s excellent future blog, NextBigFuture, seem contradictory:
African Fertility Will Boost World Population to Around 15 to 25 Billion
People in Poor Countries Will Catch up and Reduce Global Inequality
How can both of those claims be true at the same time? The dysgenic explosion of African populations suggests the likelihood of an exponential growth in global inequality, rather than a reduction.
Of course, we understand that these are not the claims of Brian Wang or NextBigFuture, but rather claims made by two completely different sets of off-blog authors, responsible for the material in the two different blog postings.
Once you read past the initial UN projections in the first article above …
African Fertility Will Boost World Population to Around 15 to 25 Billion
… NextbigFuture lays out a fascinating array of new technologies that might well allow 20 billion humans to comfortably live on Earth, and another 40 billion humans to live prosperous lifestyles across the solar system.
From large space habitats to dense but prosperous mega-cities on Earth, the above article provides a great deal of food for thought.
But we have to point out that many futurists fail to take into account the dysgenic effect of increasing low-IQ populations at the expense of high-IQ populations. If African fertility provides most human population growth in the 21st century, there is no possible way that poor countries can catch up with more advanced countries, with higher-IQ populations.
This is the problem with extrapolating past trends far into the future. In Africa, for example, there are more persons living on $1 a day, or less, than there were when income inequality between African countries and OECD countries was greater than at present. Richer leaders, poorer citizens — that is the story of Africa’s “miracle,” and the likely story of Africa’s future.
The problem with extrapolating current trends in fertility, economics, demographic changes, and other dynamic processes, is that in the face of the immigration crises in most of Europe and the Anglosphere, current levels of support for Africa’s heavily dependent populations cannot continue.
China is beginning to face its own fractured economic and political realities, as is Russia, and other geopolitical entities that Africa has grown dependent upon, besides Europe and the Anglosphere. Africa cannot maintain current populations without massive outside help — much less could its population grow in the fashion that the UN suggests it might without current massive influxes of aid, purchase of raw materials, outside technology, and outside expertise. African populations cannot exist — African cities could not exist — without outsiders to guide and support them.
Sooner or later, Africa’s support networks are likely to collapse.
Such “black swan” events, or rapidly triggered non-linear processes, will make mincemeat out of virtually all forecasts for the future.
The modumetal process is not new, and it is basically one of (repeated) electroplating. They’re being hyped up by the media because they’re working with VCs who are trying to drum-up interest, but the technology lacks applications. It’s still steel, with all of steel’s limitations — just a bit more resilient, and a lot more expensive.
The nanostructured magnesium alloys called “long period stacking ordered phases” are more interesting, as they’re extremely strong and corrosion resistant, at a mere fraction of steel’s weight. There was an interesting conference about ’em last year. Abstracts here: http://www.msre.kumamoto-u.ac.jp/LPSO2014/img/technical_program/LPSO2014program.pdf
Thanks. Multiple threads of revolution in metals, ceramics, carbon nano-structures, and newer materials yet to be characterised are quietly building, generally out of public view.
You make a good point about financial entities exerting pressure on media outlets to stir up enthusiasm for particular processes or companies. Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund found something interesting about Modumetal, however. That alone is worth a good deal of publicity, given the lack of excitement in financial news lately.
I’d add: It has taken lots of time to figure out how to use nanotechnologies — e.g. carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, inorganic nanotubes such as SiC and boron nitride nanotubes, nano-phased/graded materials reminiscent of nacre, etc. — in material composites. The difficulties are vexingly simple ones which primarily concern aggregation and dispersion, but they’re very difficult to solve, especially on commercial scales. A generation of material scientists have spent themselves working on these problems, and a simple CNT/Alumina composite has nonetheless not yet seen bulk production. The light at the end of the tunnel is in sight, though, and new processing techniques and new fundamental insights are going to drive lots of innovation over the next 10 years. As a working material scientist, I can promise you that.
(I’m reminded of where Neal Stephenson, in an interview, once said something to the effect of: “[we might look back on the late 20th and early 21st century and say] it was an actively creative society. Then the Internet happened and everything got put on hold for a generation.” The implication here being that the engineers, programmers, innovators of our society have taken a generation to figure out the internet & put it to use for them. In the same way, we’ve had carbon nanotubes for ~25 years, and graphene for 10, and we’re still just figuring out how to use them.)
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