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Three moonshots that could change the world

A moonshot is a very ambitious project. No surprise that it takes its name from the Apollo project to land on the moon.

Most advances come from incremental improvements or innovations that allow for compounding a discovery. The smartphone needed touch screens, new battery technology, smaller but more powerful processors and time.

Innovations on their own don’t always have an immediate impact, which comes from the new opportunities they provide and those adjacent possibilities can change the world.

Stephen Johnson explains.

Here are three moonshots that live up to the definition. A bee that may allow us to end our dependence on plastic, a transistor which uses only a single atom and an alloy that may be the most hard-wearing material discovered.

Masked Bee’s bioplastic

The world’s decades-long dependence on plastic has created significant environmental problems, but a tiny solitary-living bee may help ween us off some plastics thanks to the potential properties of the filler material it uses in its nest.

Humble Bee is a New Zealand startup that is investigating the properties of the bee’s nesting material which is heat resistant, flame retardant and waterproof.

The first challenge was finding the bee, the New Zealand species is very rare, so the Australian variety was chosen to extract the substance. Once it has been chemically identified and tested for the potential to be used as a replacement, the attempt to create it artificially can begin. Harvesting it from bees would be impractical. Bacteria might be able to synthesise it in sufficient quantities.

It could all be a dead end, or perhaps the cellophane-like material may be the perfect solution to some other vexing problem or allow us to attempt something we never thought about tackling.

Super wear-resistant material

Things wear out. The best designs, the most amazing machines all suffer from the inevitable challenge that friction will get you in the end. You either need to reduce the friction or find more hard wearing materials. A US lab has created an alloy of platinum and gold. Its wear resistance rivals diamonds and sapphires. Motors, engines and turbines are continually battling the effects of wear and tear of high speed moving parts that also get very hot.

The secret is not only a material that is hard but how it reacts to heat. By not getting as hot as other materials it lasts much longer.

Not only is it hard wearing, but the abrasion also appears to create a film of diamond that coats the material. This form of diamond is an excellent lubricant. So hard-wearing and self-lubricating.

Nice work Sandia Labs.

Atomic computing

Computing power is determined by the number of transistors that can be used to do calculations. Current 10nm (nanometre - 1 millionth of a metre) wide transistors are so small that you could place 8000 side-by-side on the width of a human hair. They work by using electricity to either set the transistor to an on or off state. When transistors get so small though the electrons that move through the circuit stop behaving in conventional ways. They can jump effectively closing a circuit that was not meant to be closed just because it was close enough. It also gets very hot as the moving electrons generate heat as they move and there is so little material it is not easy to dissipate the heat.

Quantum computers get around the issue by not using a transistor but rather encoding a state in the spin of the atoms in a supercooled chip. They are real, and in use, but they are unlikely to be used in anything but large and very expensive computers.

The iPhone X has over 4 billion transistors that fit into the remarkable A11 chip, so perhaps we won’t need much more power. Or not.

In any event, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have discovered a way to create a transistor using a single atom. A single atom. Just when we thought we reached the end of the Moore’s law curve, we have a new potential to start it all over again, and besides the minuscule size, the process can run at room temperature.

The future looks fast, friction-free and environmentally friendly.

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This article first appeared on 702 : Three moonshots that could change the world


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