The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently revealed its 2015 top 10 emerging technologies that offer “a glimpse of the power of innovation to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard the planet”. The list is comprised of fuel cell vehicles, next-generation robotics, recyclable thermoset plastics, precise genetic engineering techniques, additive manufacturing, emergent artificial intelligence, distributed manufacturing, ‘sense and avoid’ drones, neuromorphic technology, and digital genome. Interestingly, the identified technologies have a lot in common with Pangaea Ventures focus areas of energy, health, sustainability, and electronics, driven by advanced materials innovation to make the world better.
These innovative technologies involve a wide range of advanced materials and manufacturing processes. Metals and alloys, polymers and composites, organic and organometallic materials, ceramics, and biological materials are being leveraged to impact healthcare, energy, nutrition, electronics, manufacturing, automation, information management, and the environment. While advanced materials are engineered to deliver disruptive properties, they must still be integrated with other technologies to create transformational products. For example, the computer chip is a marvel of integration of many types of advanced materials with design engineering, manufacturing at the nanoscale, and information management, to make everyday electronic products.
While you can buy or lease a fuel cell vehicle today, it’s still a work in progress. The technology status, economic competitiveness and the hydrogen fuel infrastructure challenges were noted in a recent blog. Lower cost catalysts, more durable membranes and better hydrogen storage materials are still needed. Platinum-based catalysts get the job done but are expensive. Major efforts are ongoing with a range of materials that include complex oxides, transition metal alloys, organometallic structures, nanomaterials, etc. High temperature membranes are being deployed to facilitate better efficiency and allow more feedstock flexibility. Ongoing research to find a high performance hydrogen storage material is still proving elusive. In addition, it would be great to have novel catalyst formulations to generate renewable hydrogen for a truly sustainable approach.
Plastics can be generally grouped into two groups: thermoplastics or thermosets. Today, plastic recycling is really about thermoplastics. Not much has happened with thermosets, such as epoxies, phenolics, polyesters, and silicones due to the complex structures not easily amenable to recycling, as reported in another of our blogs. Several approaches are being explored to resolve the challenge. In one such approach, the polymeric structure is modified to allow reversibility by specific stimuli, such as low pH treatment so as to recover and then reassemble the monomers that form the thermoset. Another approach is based on the use of cleavage functional groups that allow the conversion of the thermoset into a thermoplastic after acid digestion. This is particularly useful for carbon fiber thermoset composites whereby the recycling process recovers the high value carbon fibers while generating a useful polymer byproduct. We are currently evaluating the latter approach.
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing, covered in an earlier blog, has sometimes been referred to as the “third industrial revolution”. Pangaea Ventures has conducted extensive investigations in this area, leading to an investment in 3DPCo that is developing breakthrough materials for 3D printing. Much work has been done with photopolymers and thermoplastics, with PLA, ABS, nylon, and PET commonly in use. Printing of metals, ceramics, composites and biological materials are increasing. Amazingly, desktop systems to recycle thermoplastic materials for 3D printing are now available. It would be useful to print recyclable high strength fiber-reinforced composites to open up more opportunities. Additive manufacturing will also boost distributed manufacturing, identified in the top 10 list.
Robotics has moved up from the traditional dirty and hazardous tasks to advanced manufacturing and biomedical areas. Steady technology advancements have led to improved sensing and adaptation, better dexterity, and heightened intelligence. This has been made possible by innovations in advanced materials, engineering design and computer programming. Some examples of materials innovations include electroactive polymers for actuators, electroadhesion for gripping, and electrolaminates with controllable stiffness and damping1. Have you seen Honda’s ASIMO robot? It has a lightweight magnesium alloy body coated with a polymer, powered by advanced battery technology and guided by advanced sensors. Drones, also in the top 10 list, are already commonplace. These still need lightweight materials, batteries with high energy density via improved cathode and anode materials, smarter sensors and advanced electronics. Already, the dawn of neuromorphic technology is upon us. Building systems with brain-inspired neural networks would be game-changing (“a brain on a chip”).
The human genome project completed in 2003 set the foundation for advanced genomics. Genetic engineering methods and advanced biological materials are facilitating products and processes to impact global population related issues. Imagine the improvements for healthcare! We are already looking at precision medicine to deliver personalized therapies. Advanced materials and processes were critical for success. Innovations in the human genome project included four-color fluorescence-based sequence detection, improved fluorescent dyes, dye-labeled terminators, polymerases specifically designed for sequencing, capillary gel electrophoresis and automated sample preparation2. Not surprising, advanced techniques, such as, nanopore sequencing are on the way. Researchers with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley are working on an integrated graphene nanopore with plasmonic optical antennas for direct optical DNA sequence detection.
The WEF’s 2015 top 10 emerging technologies is not an exhaustive listing but certainly hit on key points. The global population slated to pass the 9 billion mark by 2050, requiring sustainable advances in critical needs such as, healthcare, energy, and food are needed to avoid a catastrophe. With sustainable fish feed and nutrition products at Calysta, next-generation imaging systems at Redlen and engineered agricultural products from Vestaron and New Leaf, Pangaea’s portfolio companies are already engaged.