In his bold speech calling to transform the energy industry, Al Gore forgot to say one of the most important words of the 21st century – biology. He forgot to mention that if we wanted to ‘grow’ energy, carbon could become a profitable feedstock rather than an economic and environmental liability.
Gore is now calling on America to launch a major Apollo-style program to ‘decarbonize’ the electricity sector by 2018 using renewables, geothermal and carbon sequestration efforts. He imagines a world beyond ‘fossil fuels’, but might be overlooking our greatest potential investment in the energy sector – tapping biological systems that ‘eat’ carbon and ‘grow’ energy resources such as biofuels (for transportation) and hydrogen (for electricity generation).
What is possible by 2018? Within a decade we could transform the role of carbon into a profitable feedstock for clean, abundant energy by tapping the power of biology.
The phrase ‘fossil fuels’ is misleading. Coal and oil are not ancient bones or animal matter, rather they are ancient plant life and microorganisms that locked up hydrogen and carbon molecules using the power of the sun. Coal and oil are bioenergy resources. And rather than extract ancient bioenergy from the ground, we can grow the same hydrocarbon chains ourselves without adding new carbon to the atmosphere. (cont.)
To design, build or self-assemble objects at the nano scale, or
one one billionth of a meter, you need a series of building blocks,
like the alphabet that goes on to make coherent sentences and
Last Friday I gave a talk on nanotechnology, that looked at
about 17 basic nano-building blocks. Now you can add one more to the growing list.
Here’s another major milestone involving carbon nanotubes. They
can now be used as a memory storage medium, a world first, as far
as I know. This discovery could have far reaching implications.
US Patent 7335408 – CNT with magnetic
or metal inner coating
Electronics manufacturers have a great interest in novel storage
media, especially at the nanoscale . Imagine a nano-magnetic medium
for high density data storage devices. This patent from Fujitsu and
Tohoku University offers a method for coating the inner surfaces of
nanotubes with magnetic or metal material for information storage
and other purposes …. I can think of a range of applications, both
good ones (such as medical and environmental sensors) and bad
Stepping into McLuhan’s shoes, we could ask ourselves.
What does this technology enhance? Instant feedback, our moral,
ethical and ecological conscience
What does it obsolesce? Privacy, as we know it today
What does it retrieve or bring back? Global and local
Sense-making, presencing, wisdom of the ages, back to our
At the extreme, what does it reverse or flip into? A second
layer; nervous-system for the earth?
The famous artist Leonardo da Vinci once offered the following
pearl of wisdom: “Study the art of science and the science of art.”
It is advice that food scientists have taken to heart in spades.
However, as a result of advances in the new emerging field of
nanotechnology – which is briefly defined as
manipulating atoms at the molecular level in order to make new
products – scientists and other food professionals will now be
required to apply their understanding of science to a level that
is so infinitesimally small that it is hard to grasp. One nanometer
is roughly 100,000 times thinner than a human hair.
But to professionals in a field where it is not uncommon that a
pinch of a spice or a few extra seconds of heat to an ingredient
can make the difference between a good meal and a great one, it
will be important to understand that at the nanoscale the weird
world of quantum mechanics kicks in and materials and ingredients
begin to manifest entirely new characteristics, and it is
scientists ability to manipulate these new and enhanced
characteristics that lies at the heart of the fields ability to
transform virtually every aspect of food. (For a good, short
primer, I recommend this recent article describing Nestle’s use
of nanotechnology to create foods with optimal stability,
nutrient delivery, flavors and aromas.)
A New Sharper Knife
Today, the food scientist must concern him or herself with
issues of health and nutrition, good and bad fats, sanitation,
packaging and, of course, pairings, aromas, textures, sensations
and flavors. The ability to apply modern science to culinary
problems in these latter areas has sometimes called “molecular gastronomy.” Nanotechnology
will require culinlogists to take this skill to a new and smaller
Bucky Fuller (1895-1983) is widely recognized as one of the
world’s great modern visionaries of the 20th century. He was a
natural Futurist, not because of his intellect, but his wisdom to
challenge widely held assumptions from the world around him.
He blended his skills as a writer, thinker, and engineer into a
concept he called “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.”
Bucky believed that the essence of human life on the planet is to
solve problems and continue expanding our awareness and views of
what is possible.
Our best strategy for addressing problems of the 21st century
might be to revisit the core principles of his philosophy related
to design, shape and energy. If the Whitney curators, are correct,
Bucky Fuller might turn out to be one of the most influential
thinkers of not one, but two centuries.
It sounds like a prediction right out of “The Singularity Is Near,” but this one is from Antonio López Peláez, a professor of sociology at Spain’s National Distance Learning University, UNED, and co-author of the study on the future social impact of robots, jointly carried out with the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies. International experts working on inventing and adapting cutting edge robots for practical use were interviewed during the study, in order to find out by when we will be regularly using the models they are currently designing. All agreed on 2020 as a technological inflection point, because by then robots “will be able to see, act, speak, manage natural language and have intelligence, and our relationship with them will have become more constant and commonplace”, said López Peláez. This will follow a revolution in robotics after which they will no longer be sophisticated machines, but tools to be used on a daily basis, helping us with a large number of work and social activities. He goes on to say even more significant will be the insertion of robots into our bodies, such as intelligent implants in the brain, which will improve our rational thought, and nanorobots to be released into the blood to clean our arteries. You can find the article here.
AI(Artificial Intelligence) and IE (Intelligence Enhancement) is all hype. Nonsense!
While I am still skeptical, I am inclined to agree based on developments of the past few years. More and more I am seeing major breakthroughs in computer science and we are reaching specific milestones that were correctly predicted to happen. The memristor,the missing fourth electronic circuit element, was created just this year by HP (Hewlett Packard). The circuit element had only been described in a series of mathematical equations written by Leon Chua, who in 1971 was an engineering student studying non-linear circuits. Chua knew the circuit element should exist -- he even accurately outlined its properties and how it would work.It has been theorized that it may lead to instant-on PCs as well as analog computers that process information the way the human brain does.
Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced
technology is virtually indistinguishable from magic.” Enter
mankind’s newest plunge into the future – nanotechnology.
One day soon, a small Star Trek-like replicator called a
“nanofactory” will sit on your kitchen counter and let you order up
any product you want – plasma TV, clothes, an appliance, or whatever your
dreams desire – at little or no cost.
This wild technology sounds like science fiction, but its not.
According to AI entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil and nanotech author Eric
Drexler, this nanofactory will arrive by the 3rd decade of this
century – 2020-2030.
Here’s how nanotech replicators would work: microscopic-size
machines collect raw atoms from supplied chemicals, or from
something as inexpensive as seawater, and enable those atoms to
grow or “morph” into the final product: a sweater, refrigerator,
health medicine, or even a duplicate nanofactory.
Key technologies of the past half-century – transistors,
semiconductors, and genetic engineering – all focused on reducing
size, materials and costs, while increasing power and efficiency.
We now stand poised to continue this trend into a revolution that
offers the potential to rebuild the entire physical world – our
bodies and brains included – one atom at a time.
The National Institutes of Health states that someday implanted
nanotech materials will actually become part of the body – able to
search out and destroy cancer cells before they develop into a
tumor, or precisely direct drugs to heal damaged tissues – and when
no longer needed, dissolve and be absorbed or excreted. (cont.)
Neurons made from exotic nanomaterials could one day enable
humans to survive even the most horrendous accidents, and as a
bonus, provide some amazing new abilities.
Nano-engineer John Burch, co-designer of the nanofactory
video, “Productive Nanosystems: from Molecules to Superproducts,”
believes that by as early as the 2030s, we could be replacing our
brain cells with non-biological nanotech materials that process
thoughts faster, and is nearly indestructible.
“The new brain would include an exact copy of our memories and
personality that existed before we converted”, Burch says, “but it
would run millions of times faster and would increase our memory a
thousand fold. In addition, this futuristic brain will allow us to
control the speed of our thoughts; we could jump from 100
milliseconds, the response time for biological cells, to 50
nanoseconds – 20 million times faster”.
Creating thoughts at this speed would, in our mind at least,
slow the world down by a factor of 20 million. Our perception would
speed up, but physics limits how fast we can move, so to us, the
world would seem to slow as our brain ran faster. Think of what
this means. In an emergency, we would have time to think and plan.
Events that seem like hours to us would actually be happening in a
split second. (cont.)
Nuclear weapons are sooo 20th century. If you want to bring
annihilation to the planet for not conforming to whatever depraved
idealism you aspire to, there will soon be many much more
interesting ways to do it. Unlike nukes, these technologies won’t
be reserved for elite governments.
Nanotechnology presents the most possibilities. How about using
self replicating nanoscopic robots to turn everything on the planet
into grey goo? This kind of destruction would be so effective that
nothing would remain of the present world. Perhaps this kind of
disaster has already happened in our history? As there would be no
evidence, we would never know!
However, for many supervillians or religious fanatics,
disassembling us to our core molecules just wouldn’t be fulfilling
enough. Fear not, the destructive power of nanotechnology is
limited only by our imaginations.
What about swarms of predatory nanobots, programmed to hunt down
and kill “non-believers” and kill them in any manner of ways –
asphyxiation, crushing, burning, or simply tearing them apart?
Having a non-solid physical presence they would be virtually
impossible to catch and destroy.
Nano-assemblers, machines capable of manufacturing anything with
atomic precision out of basic molecules such as carbon, look set to
change the entire world as we know it. They would put an end to
world hunger, propel the entire world into luxury, and have untold
effects on the economy. Or, they could be used to undermine
security measures, creating weapons in volatile scenarios, thus
reversing power balances in an instant.
Imagine terrorists gaining access to the Whitehouse unarmed,
only to fabricate guns once inside. Or an entire country arming
every citizen within hours before going on a worldwide rampage?
With nano-assemblers, the rules of supply, laws of transportation,
and manufacturing limitations are turned on their head. As such,
any controls put in place to limit armourment are undermined in an
Because they are investing in the future design of catalysts!
And their strategy is to innovate at the nanoscale.
The Beginning of Nano
Physicist Richard Feynman is often credited with launching the
‘nanoscale’ era of engineering with his famous lecture ‘Plenty of
Room at the Bottom’ at Caltech in 1959. Feynman
described our future ability to manipulate individual atoms and
eventually create complex mechanical structures made of the
Fifty years after Feynman’s lecture, researchers and startups
are making significant progress in designing nanoscale structured
materials that will have an enormous impact on all aspects of the
energy industry from production, to storage to end use
What is disruptive about catalysts?
Simply put, catalysts help us get more output with less energy
input. Catalysts speed up the reaction of photo-, chemical and
electrochemical changes in everything from batteries, fuel cells,
and solar cells, to the refining of coal, gasoline, diesel, and
natural gas, and the production of hydrogen and biofuels. Catalysts
also help to reduce the energy required to create plastics,
biomaterials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.
The rules of the energy industry game are being re-written by
companies designing synthetic metal and carbon-based catalysts that
change our notions of what is possible in the years ahead. Other
companies are attempting to harness, or mimic, naturally occurring
bio-catalysts that gracefully manipulate energy in all living
things from algae/bacteria to plants to human beings.
Catalysts are the silent work horses of our modern world but you
seldom, if ever, hear or see the word mentioned in mainstream
conversations about energy. Yet they hold the key to unlocking
human potential without draining the planet’s resources. Catalysts
can help realize the vision of a world powered by cheap, abundant,
clean energy. (Continued)
Researchers from Northwestern University have developed a new class of ‘honeycomb’ gas separation materials to purify hydrogen rich mixtures like methane (natural gas) for generating electricity via fuel cells.
Traditional methods of gas separation use selective membranes that grab molecules by size. But Northwestern's Professor Mercouri G. Kanatzidis and Gerasimos S. Armatas are using a method of polarization. As the gas mixture of (carbon dioxide and hydrogen) travels through the inner walls of the ‘mesopourous’ membrane, the carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules are slowed down and pulled towards the wall as the hydrogen molecules pass through the holes.
One type of membrane consisting of heavy elements germanium, lead and tellurium showed to be approximately four times more selective at separating hydrogen than traditional methods using lighter elements such as silicon, oxygen and carbon. The process is reported to work at “convenient temperature range” -- between zero degrees Celsius and room temperature.
“We are taking advantage of what we call ‘soft’ atoms, which form the membrane’s walls,” said Kanatzidis. “These soft-wall atoms like to interact with other soft molecules passing by, slowing them down as they pass through the membrane. Hydrogen, the smallest element, is a ‘hard’ molecule. It zips right through while softer molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane take more time.”
“What you do is replace about 10% of your blood with these
respirocytes and then you would have literally 4 hours where you
can hold your breath,” lays out Fritz, “So if you had a problem
with your heart stopping you could just leisurely call the hospital
and tell them ‘Well, i’ve had a heart attack, my heart is
Or another option, as Fritz points out, is that “you could go
scuba diving without any gear.”
Check out the full Fritz interview by Dean Rotbart, Director of
the Low-Volume Manufacturers Association, here. (Would have
embedded the vid, but the youtube code is buggy.) (cont.)
In the not too distant future cancer will be eradicated, clean
and powerful new forms of energy will be the norm and people all
across the globe will have access to clean drinking water. While to
some such predictions may sound like narrative straight out of a
utopian sci-fi novel, according to best-selling author and futurist
Uldrich those are realistic possibilities in a world driven by
A global futurist, speaker and proprietor of well respected
consulting firm Nanoveritas, Uldrich advises a
variety of businesses on nanotechnology
developments and, more broadly, how to keep ahead of the curve of a variety of
rapidly advancing technologies. On July 10, 2008, I had the
opportunity to interview Mr. Uldrich and discuss a host of
interesting issues including robots in hospitals, solar panels
mixed into wallpaper and paint, and the potential for low-cost
solar cells to uplift underdeveloped regions around the world. In
the days that followed, Mr. Uldrich announced his bid for the U.S.
Senate which, if successful, would make him the first professional
futurist to hold national office.
Here’s the full text of the audio interview with the man who
could become the next U.S. Senator from the great State of
Minnesota, chock full of wisdom and also some great advice for both
students and lay persons looking to get a leg up on the future:
M: What do you do and how is that related to the
JU: I am a writer and a public speaker and all of my books focus
on the future. Really since my first book on nanotech 5 years ago,
I have broadened out to looking at all emerging technologies and
all of my speaking engagements are around trying to prepare
business and trade organizations to prepare for the future.