CREDIT University of Central Florida

CREDIT University of Central Florida

In my last post I wrote about some of the ways a bright technological future is already under construction, one development at a time. There are far too many new inventions and discoveries to be covered in a handful of blog posts, but I thought I’d touch on just a few more. You can follow the links to read more details at the magazine

Some of the most exciting new work is being done in the area of energy. Since our ravenous consumption of energy from fossil fuel sources is one of the key reasons our world’s environment is in such a sorry state, every alternative is a step toward heading off even worse damage. Some new developments are potential sources of energy production, like the wafer materials known as ferroelectret nanogenerators such as are being developed at Michigan State University. These FENGs (for short) involve layers of complex materials sandwiched together which produce an electric current when compressed. So, for instance, pressing on a touch screen device might produce the energy to power that screen. Bending and flexing can also produce current, perhaps turning our elbows or knees into potential energy generators. With a FENG folded into a more potent package in the heel of a shoe, creating energy could be a walk in the park!

Thermoelectric materials produce electric current because of temperature differences on either side of the material. Scientists at Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology say they’ve developed a thermoelectric coating that can simply be painted onto objects. So nearly anything that has a warmer inside and a colder outside (or vice versa) could produce energy. Maybe not useful for house paint in northern climates where we like our homes well insulated, but possibly for shelters in more gentle climes. And certainly potentially useful for loads of household gadgets from coffee mugs to crockpots.

With our desire for ever more powerful portable computing devices, designers have explored lots of ways to make our clothing and accessories “smart” with circuitry incorporated into them, but also elegant means to power such devices. University of Central Florida scientists have created a “fabric” that uses threads of very special filaments. A coating on one side of the filament gathers solar energy then passes it over to the other side, which is a superconductor (storing energy like a battery). A combination sweater/smartphone anyone? Although, not surprisingly, the first practical uses for this stuff will probably be in uniforms for the modern soldier, giving them the ability to power a range of portable high-tech hardware without the weight of batteries.

Other developments are fascinating if mainly for their “oh, wow” ingenuity, like the way Irish materials scientist Jonathan Coleman added flakes of graphene (one-atom-thick sheets of carbon atoms) to Silly Putty to produce an electrically conductive material he calls G-putty that’s ridiculously sensitive to pressure impacts of any kind. That could make it the perfect choice for medical sensors and other sensing equipment (and made of Silly Putty!)

Still other innovations could transform our world in ways that might take some time to become clear. A company in the Netherlands has created an alternative to stairs and elevators which they call Vertical Walking. In a near-sitting position, a person uses their arms and core muscles to pull themselves up vertical rails in a series of movements that provide healthful exercise but aren’t much more strenuous than walking, while not requiring the external energy, space, and infrastructure of elevators. I’m not sure it’ll catch on, though it’s an interesting idea.

But I have to say that not all new inventions will necessarily make the world a better place. Speaking as someone who’s still mystified by the appeal of “selfies” and their proliferation along social media, I wasn’t impressed by the appearance of the selfie stick. So I’m also not a fan of the AirSelfie drone—a miniature quadcopter the size and shape of a smartphone designed to offer even more ways to be relentlessly narcissistic. Stored in your smartphone case, powered by and linked to the phone, it flutters smoothly into the air at your command, just far enough to take yet another series of pictures of YOU.

If you think this is the most exciting of the breakthroughs I’ve just mentioned, please, I don’t want to know.