Emerging Technologies of 2015

I believe the next few years will see technological advances like never before. There will be new takes on all the old ways of doing things, and hopefully that will mean an improvement in most peoples daily lives. The following article is from Scientific American and is well worth reading:

1. Fuel-cell vehicles
Zero-emission cars that run on hydrogen

Fuel-cell vehicles have long promised several major advantages over those powered by electricity or hydrocarbons. The technology has only now begun to reach the stage where automotive companies are planning launches for consumers, however. Initial prices are likely to be in the range of $70,000 but should come down significantly as volumes increase within the next couple of years.

Unlike batteries, which must be charged from an external source and can take from five to 12 hours depending on the car and charger, fuel cells generate electricity directly, using hydrogen or natural gas. In practice, fuel cells and batteries are combined, with the fuel cell generating electricity and the batteries storing it until demanded by the motors that drive the vehicle. Fuel-cell vehicles are therefore hybrids and will likely also deploy regenerative braking, which recovers energy from waste heat, a key capability for maximizing efficiency and range.

Unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel-cell powered ones have a long cruising range—up to 650 kilometers per tank (the fuel is usually compressed hydrogen gas); a hydrogen fuel refill only takes about three minutes. Hydrogen is clean-burning, producing only water vapor as waste, so fuel-cell vehicles using hydrogen will be zero-emission, an important factor given the need to reduce air pollution.

There are a number of ways to produce hydrogen without generating carbon emissions. Most obviously, renewable sources of electricity from wind and solar sources can be used to electrolyze water—although the overall energy efficiency of this process is likely to be quite low. Hydrogen can also be split from water in high-temperature nuclear reactors or generated from fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, with the resulting carbon dioxide captured and sequestered rather than released into the atmosphere.

As well as the production of cheap hydrogen on a large scale, a significant challenge is the lack of a hydrogen distribution infrastructure that would be needed to parallel and eventually replace gas and diesel filling stations. Long-distance transport of hydrogen, even in a compressed state, is not considered economically feasible today. Innovative hydrogen storage techniques, such as organic liquid carriers that do not require high-pressure storage, however, will soon lower the cost of long-distance transport and ease the risks associated with gas storage and inadvertent release.

Mass-market fuel-cell vehicles are an attractive prospect because they will offer the range and fueling convenience of today’s diesel and gas-powered vehicles while providing the benefits of sustainability in personal transportation. Achieving these benefits will, however, require the reliable and economical production of hydrogen from entirely low-carbon sources as well as its distribution to a growing fleet of vehicles, expected to number in the many millions within a decade.

2. Next-generation robotics
Rolling away from the production line

The popular imagination has long foreseen a world where robots take over all manner of everyday tasks. This robotic future has stubbornly refused to materialize, however, with robots still limited to factory assembly lines and other controlled tasks. Although heavily used (in the automotive industry, for instance), these robots are large and dangerous to human co-workers; they have to be separated by safety cages.

Advances in robotics technology are making human–machine collaboration an everyday reality. Better and cheaper sensors make a robot more able to “understand” and respond to its environment. Robot bodies are becoming more adaptive and flexible, with designers taking inspiration from the extraordinary flexibility and dexterity of complex biological structures, such as the human hand. And robots are becoming more connected, benefiting from the cloud-computing revolution by being able to access instructions and information remotely, rather than having to be programmed as a fully autonomous unit.

The new age of robotics takes these machines away from the big manufacturing assembly lines and into a wide variety of tasks. Using GPS technology, just like smartphones, robots are beginning to be used in precision agriculture for weed control and harvesting. In Japan robots are being tried in nursing roles. They help patients out of bed, for instance, and support stroke victims in regaining control of their limbs. Smaller and more dextrous robots, such as Dexter Bot, Baxter and LBR iiwa, are designed to be easily programmable and to handle manufacturing tasks that are laborious or uncomfortable for human workers.

Indeed, robots are ideal for tasks that are too repetitive or dangerous for humans to undertake, and can work 24 hours a day at a lower cost than human workers. In reality, new-generation robotic machines are likely to collaborate with humans rather than replace them. Even considering advances in design and artificial intelligence, human involvement and oversight will remain essential.

There remains the risk that robots may displace humans from jobs, although previous waves of automation have tended to lead to higher productivity and growth, with benefits throughout the economy. Decades-old fears of networked robots running out of control may become more salient as next-generation robots are linked to the Web, but at the same time they will become more familiar as people employ domestic robots to do household chores. Undoubtedly, however, the next generation of robotics poses new questions about the human relationship with machines.

3. Recyclable thermoset plastics
A new kind of plastic to cut landfill waste

Plastics are divided into thermoplastics and thermoset plastics. The former can be heated and shaped many times and are ubiquitous in the modern world, comprising everything from children’s toys to lavatory seats. Because they can be melted down and reshaped, thermoplastics are generally recyclable. Thermoset plastics, however, can only be heated and shaped once, after which molecular changes mean they are “cured,” retaining their shape and strength even when subjected to intense heat and pressure.

Due to this durability thermoset plastics are a vital part of our modern world. They are used in everything from mobile phones and circuit boards to the aerospace industry. But the same characteristics that have made them essential in modern manufacturing also make them impossible to recycle. As a result, most thermoset polymers end up as landfill. Given the ultimate objective of sustainability, there has long been a pressing need for recyclability in thermoset plastics.

In 2014 critical advances were made in this area with the publication of a landmark paper in Science announcing the discovery of new classes of thermosetting polymers that are recyclable. Called poly(hexahydrotriazine)s, or PHTs, these can be dissolved in strong acid, breaking apart the polymer chains into component monomers that can then be reassembled into new products. Like traditional unrecyclable thermosets, these new structures are rigid, resistant to heat and tough, with the same potential applications as their unrecyclable forerunners.

Although no recycling is 100 percent efficient, this innovation—if widely deployed—should speed up the move toward a circular economy, with a big reduction in landfill waste from plastics. We expect recyclable thermoset polymers to replace unrecyclable thermosets within five years, and to be ubiquitous in newly manufactured goods by 2025.

4. Precise genetic-engineering techniques

A breakthrough offers better crops with less controversy

Conventional genetic engineering has long caused controversy. Now new techniques are emerging that allow us to directly “edit” the genetic code of plants to make them, for example, more nutritious or better able to cope with a changing climate; we believe the benefits, and the precision in “editing,” could allay the concerns, leading to more widespread adoption.

Currently, the genetic engineering of crops relies on the bacterium agrobacterium tumefaciens to transfer desired DNA into the target genome. The technique is proved and reliable and, despite widespread public fears, there is a consensus in the scientific community that genetically modifying organisms using this technique is no more risky than modifying them using conventional breeding. Whereas agrobacterium is useful, more precise and varied genome-editing techniques have been developed in recent years.

These include ZFNs, TALENs and, more recently, the CRISPR–Cas9 system, which evolved in bacteria as a defence mechanism against viruses. CRISPR–Cas9 uses an RNA molecule to target DNA, cutting to a known, user-selected sequence in the target genome. This capability can disable an unwanted gene or modify it in a way that is functionally indistinguishable from a natural mutation. Using “homologous recombination,” CRISPR can also be used to insert new DNA sequences or even whole genes into the genome in a precise way.

Another aspect of genetic engineering that appears poised for a major advance is the use of RNA interference (RNAi) in crops. RNAi is effective against viruses and fungal pathogens and can also protect plants against insect pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Viral genes have been used to protect papaya plants against the ring spot virus, for example, with no sign of resistance evolving in over a decade of use in Hawaii. RNAi may also benefit major staple-food crops, protecting wheat against stem rust, rice against blast, potato against blight and banana against fusarium wilt.

Many of these innovations will be particularly beneficial to smaller farmers in developing countries. As such, genetic engineering may become less controversial as people recognize its effectiveness at boosting the incomes and improving the diets of millions of people. In addition, more precise genome editing may allay public fears, especially if the resulting plant or animal is not considered transgenic because no foreign genetic material is introduced.

Taken together, these techniques promise to advance agricultural sustainability by reducing input use in multiple areas, from water and land to fertilizer, while also helping crops to adapt to climate change.

5. Additive manufacturing
The future of making things, from printable organs to intelligent clothes

As the name suggests, additive manufacturing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing. The latter is how manufacturing has traditionally been done: Layers are subtracted, or removed from a larger piece of material (wood, metal, stone, etcetera), leaving the desired shape. Additive manufacturing instead starts with loose material, either liquid or powder, and then builds it into a three-dimensional shape using a digital template, one layer at a time.

Three-dimensional products can be highly customized to the end user, unlike mass-produced manufactured goods. An example is the company Invisalign, which uses computer imaging of customers’ teeth to make near-invisible braces tailored to their mouths. Other medical applications are taking 3-D printing in a more biological direction: Machines can directly print human cells, thereby creating living tissues that may find potential application in drug safety screening and, ultimately, tissue repair and regeneration. An early example of this bioprinting is Organovo’s printed liver-cell layers, which are aimed at drug testing and may eventually be used to create transplant organs. Bioprinting has already been used to generate skin and bone as well as heart and vascular tissue, which offer huge potential in future personalized medicine.

An important next stage in additive manufacturing would be the 3-D printing of integrated electronic components, such as circuit boards. Nanoscale computer parts, such as processors, are difficult to manufacture this way because of the challenges of combining electronic components with others made from multiple different materials. In other areas 4-D printing now promises to bring in a new generation of products that can alter themselves in response to environmental changes, such as heat and humidity. This could be useful in clothes or footwear, for example, as well as in health care products, such as implants designed to change in the human body.

Like distributed manufacturing, additive manufacturing is potentially highly disruptive to conventional processes and supply chains. But it remains a nascent technology today, with applications mainly in the automotive, aerospace and medical sectors. Rapid growth is expected over the next decade as more opportunities emerge and innovation in this technology brings it closer to the mass market.