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April 03, 2009

Trend Tracking and Projections

The first 6 weeks of technology developments in 2009 and
the second 6 weeks have seen a lot of big developments. One of the comments was to have trend tracking and projections included in the big development highlight roundups.

That will be included as part of future highlight packages.

Here are the trends and projections for the first two highlight packages.

Graphene electronics, material applications and commercialization is happening faster than many expected.

Eric Drexler also covers the graphene nanotechnology progress.

Production volumes and specifics of what is being produced, quality and sizes are key to tracking the progress of carbon nanotubes and graphene. It mostly not a question of can something be done, it is can it be commercially developed and brought out of lab demonstrations and scaled up to industrial quality, consistency and volume.

The target markets for graphene and carbon nanotubes will be places where superior properties are useful and enable something highly valuable to be done which was not possible with cheaper alternatives and niche markets with lower volumes of material requirements.

Replacing and improving all of the electrical shielding in airplanes with a volume of carbon nanotubes formed into tape instead of copper wiring can save one third of weight currently and production volumes of the required form of carbon nanotubes is being rolled out. The retrofits and production can occur over the next 2-5 years. This will be discussed in detail in an upcoming post from an phone interview with Nanocomp Technologies. Flat out replacing copper for the electric power grid using carbon nanotubes is still many years away. Those kind of bulk applications need many thousands to millions of tons of carbon nanotubes and production is less than a couple of hundred tons for carbon nanotubes that are mostly like powder. The millimeter(s) long carbon nanotubes are going to be produced a few tons at time perhaps next year. The many centimeter long carbon nanotubes are expensive lab curiousities at this point.

Carbon fiber which many people have already bought sporting goods built from those more crude materials are still only about 52,000 tons/year in global production. Steel is over 1 billion tons per year. World copper production is about 18.5 million tons.

Carbon nanotubes and graphene do not need to replace ton per ton. Higher performance means you can use less to do the same thing. Also, you can mix the pure material in with polymers to enhance properties. The final product might only be a few percent carbon nanotubes or graphene. Still as commonly as we see carbon fiber products that is at 52,000 tons/year and we do not have carbon fiber as major part of the power grid.





DNA nanotechnology, self-assembly, synthetic biology, synthetic life, quantum dots, and other nanotechnology seem to be on the verge of commercial breakthroughs to significant first markets.

There is a lot of interesting capability at just above the atomically precise level. 2-15 nanometers scaled control, science and capabilities are looking to be very useful.

Something to keep a close eye on is the guided self assembly of 2 nanometer precise structures for computer chips. This is claimed to be easily commercializable. Whether tens of thousands of wafers per month can be produced by a factory is what needs to be tracked if we were to see a major replacement of existing silicon technology.

The scale of our current technological society is why it takes time for superior technology to make a big impact. How long has it taken Flash Memory to get to where it is now ? Hard drives also kept improving at the same time.

Stem cells, gene therapy, regeneration, tissue engineering, super-cheap biometrics and diagnosis are all areas where the science is advancing rapidly and I expect many more announcements of development of lab capabilities. There is a lag in implementation and deployment, which is made even longer because of regulations and societal resistance. Super-cheap biometric marker analysis and diagnosis will likely have a major impact first because the approval and deployment processes are easier. Stem cell therapies, gene therapies and other advanced medicine will likely be tested and tried first in overseas markets.

I am becoming more and more confident that breakthroughs in energy technology will be happening. Energy technology game-changers would be absolutely certain with a greater shift from incremental refinement to a willingness to build more, test more and fail more instead of debate and paper and lab studies. Technological progress in aircraft was purposely slowed down by Robert McNamara because the X-plane projects were complicating arms control negotiations by advancing capabilities too quickly.

It helps no one and makes no one safer to take 20-40 years to build or fix a bridge or skyscraper. Do 5-10 years of regulatory work help make nuclear plants safer ? Will the tons of paperwork be used as extra radiation shielding ? China is only building as fast as the USA used to build. Over 99% of what the US built in the old days has done just fine in terms of safety over the decades. Design improvements and other advances could be incorporated for added safety without the delays.

Where the future of key technologies starts to have big impact will be greatly determined by regulations and policies. Clearly the economic incentives will force some of those restrictions to be lifted.

The tree of market niches for each area of technology needs to be known in terms of size and requirements (including marketing and regulatory requirements and willingness and cost to switch) to displace the current technology. This will determine which areas are conquered first and the impact that it will have.
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