I subscribe to a lot of science and technology feeds and as seems normal these days I saw a number of new technologies in the last few weeks that excite me. As you probably can tell by reading my blog, I am an optimist and I have high hopes that technology can help us overcome some of the challenges facing our planet.
Probably the most promising new technology of the bunch is water-based batteries. Scientists at the University of Southern California have developed a battery that is all-organic, water-based, contains no metals or toxic chemicals and can be entirely synthesized (not using materials mined from the earth).
These are large batteries, the kind that can be used to store power generated by wind or solar energy. The batteries work by using a class of chemicals called quinones that can be dissolved in water. These batteries should be cheaper than current batteries. Right now estimates are that these will cost around $100 per kilowatt hour but will last fifteen years. That’s the same cost as for lead-acid batteries that last for a much shorter time. And these batteries eliminate the toxic waste problem we face with current battery technology.
Next, scientists at the University of Utah have developed an improvement in solar cell technology that can greatly increase the efficiency for cheap solar technology. Today, the affordable solar cells generally rely on one material to hold down manufacturing costs. For example, the common silicon-based solar cells are cheap to produce but are only about 22% efficient in the conversion of sunlight into energy.
There are more efficient solar cells that combine multiple layers of different materials, each of which captures a different part of the light spectrum. But such cells are expensive to make and are generally only used in critical applications such as in military equipment. These scientists have developed a polychromat layer that adds efficiency to existing solar cells. Efficiencies in various applications have improved the efficiencies of the cells by about 16%. Anything that can get more electricity out of low-cost solar cells is an important discovery as we work towards a future where solar production is more cost effective than using fossil fuels.
Next, scientists at the Ames Research Center for NASA have taken a look backwards and have developed a vacuum tube that can be used to develop faster computing. One of the problems with standard CMOS transistors is that they have just about reached their smallest size limit, and they also have an inherent speed limit of a few gigahertz. The NASA scientists have created a nanometer-sized vacuum-channel transistor tube with speeds up to 460 GHz. That is the same sort of speed that has been postulated for grapheme transistors, which have not yet been developed
At this small size a large number of these tubes could be packed together to create a significantly faster computer core than anything possible today. There are, of course a lot of obstacles to go from lab to production, but this joins the list of technologies that are being considered as the next-generation replacement for the transistor in computers.
Finally, scientists at the University of Cambridge have devised a way to make a much stronger superconducting magnet. They broke a decades-old record by creating a golf-ball sized crystal that can generate a 17.6 Tesla magnetic field. And this can be done at higher temperatures than previously needed and only require minus 320 degrees F compared to older technologies needed minus 460 degrees F. These magnets could lead to breakthroughs in electric power generation or could even be the basis for levitating monorails.
We live in a pretty amazing time. It seems like almost every field of research is finding breakthroughs. These four inventions alone could provide for a better world by providing safer and cheaper batteries, better solar power generation, faster computers and better transportation.