Articles by: Kyle BentleyKyle Bentley
Kyle Bentley is a University of Ottawa graduate who enjoys reading and writing about many topics, including new and exciting technology. He is fascinated by the technology in science fiction, and is looking forward to bringing new perspectives and ideas about technology to the readers of Ottawa Life Magazine. To contact please email: kyle.bentley@hotmail.ca

Astounding Soundwaves

June 3, 2015 10:09 am
An example of how sound waves expand from a central point. Photo credit.

Above: An example of how sound waves expand from a central point. Photo credit.

Sound is something most people experience almost every minute of every day, and so it is easy to take for granted. However, even something as simple as sound can be used to create powerful tools when combined with advanced technology. Sonic devices may not be as common in science fiction as laser or plasma technology, but that does not mean sonic technology has any less potential.

The Doctor's favourite tool, his trusty sonic screwdriver. Photo credit: http://www.residententertainment.com/doctor-who-series-8-images/

The Doctor’s favourite tool, his trusty sonic screwdriver. Photo credit.

Perhaps more than any other work of science fiction, the Doctor Who television series has made people aware of the possibilities of sonic technology. The Doctor is rarely seen without his sonic screwdriver, a handy device that seems to be able to perform almost any task required of it.

Although the promise of a nearly universal tool is still a long way off, ultrasonic engineers at the University of Bristol are experimenting with technologies that may one day lead to a real-life sonic screwdriver. These experiments are focused on the idea of using powerful ultrasonic sound waves, far beyond the range of human hearing, to move objects. It is likely the objects that can be moved will be very small at first, but the engineers are already investigating ways to spin these sound waves into vortexes. If this technique is perfected, it could mean in the near future DIY types everywhere will be tightening and loosening screws with sound.

The future of firefighting may use soundwaves instead of chemicals. Photo credit.

The future of firefighting may use soundwaves instead of chemicals. Photo credit.

Home improvement is not the only area where sonic technology could prove useful in the future. A pair of undergraduate students at George Mason University has recently developed a device to put out fires with controlled sound waves. This new fire extinguisher works by using the vibrations caused by low frequency sound waves to push oxygen away from a fire, starving it and quickly putting it out. The full limits of this new system have not been explored yet, and it may not be useable against very large fires, but its lack of reliance on chemicals, foams or liquids means it could be deployed in areas where ordinary firefighting equipment would be unsuitable.

Besides use in the home, this system could be deployed in space stations, server rooms, electronics warehouses and other areas where the chemicals and foams used by other systems could cause a great deal of damage. There is already consideration of mounting a version of this system into stovetop vapour hoods and potentially even mounting it on drones for use in fighting larger fires.

The ability to use sound for a variety of uses is an interesting development, but there are also times when people want to keep sound away. Whether trying to protect a submarine from sonar detection, or simply trying to enjoy a movie at the theatre, being able to control where sound goes and doesn’t go is a valuable thing.

This strangely shaped pyramid can block sonar. Photo credit.

This strangely shaped pyramid can block sonar. Photo credit.

An engineer at Duke University believes he has found the secret to doing just that. He has created a plastic, pyramid shaped object filled with carefully placed holes. These holes, and the air within the pyramid, allow sound waves to flow through the pyramid without touching the object placed inside. Since the sound waves are not touching the object they cannot reflect off of it, making the object within the pyramid invisible to sonar. Besides the military applications of using this technology to hide submarines and ships from detection, this technology could be used to better control and manipulate acoustics within buildings. Through using this material, architects could decide exactly where sound would go, allowing for greater clarity and volume in places like movie theatres, lecture halls, and conference centres.

Sounds are such an everyday thing for most people that we often take it for granted, but hidden within those very sounds is a huge well of untapped technological potential. Only the future can show what other advancements in the field of sonic technology will be made within the coming years.

Changing the Future: Moisture Vaporators

March 31, 2015 1:09 pm
Changing the Future: Moisture Vaporators

The technology of science fiction is often flashy and impressive, but more mundane seeming inventions that make up the background of movie sets are equally likely to change the real world. The perfect example of this is the moisture vaporator, a device that is mentioned in passing in the original Star Wars film, but not described in detail. These iconic towers, which can be seen throughout the first part of the movie, are slender metal towers that condense water from the atmosphere. In the Star Wars universe, these valuable machines provide much of the water needed for life on desert planets like Tatooine.

Although simple devices like these are quickly lost in the flurry of space battles and lightsaber fights, the promise of drawing drinkable water out of the air provides a great deal of promise in the real world. A large percentage of the world’s population live in areas where access to clean drinking water is far from assured, and many people predict the worldwide need for water will only continue to grow as a point of contention between nations. Water is needed for so much more than drinking though, and the ability to provide the people of the world with much needed water would improve sanitation, industry and possibly even help to fight increasing desertification. The ability to draw water out of the air and provide it to directly where it is needed would change many lives across the Earth for the better.

Photo credit: http://www.designboom.com/technology/fontus-self-filling-bottle-water-10-25-2014/

Photo credit: http://www.designboom.com/technology/fontus-self-filling-bottle-water-10-25-2014/

Fortunately, this technology is already being realized. The compact Fontus device, created by Kristof Retezar, is small enough to fit on a bicycle and powerful enough to harvest half a litre of water an hour under ideal conditions. The device uses a system of cooled condensers and filters to extract and purify the water, and has a built in solar cell that provides all of its energy needs. The extracted pours down into a bottle, which can be quickly detached when the rider wants a drink. This handy system is an easy way to quench your thirst while on a ride, but it also has far greater potential. Increasing the scope of this simple system could go a long way to helping people in developing countries to have access to the resources they need to survive.

The Fontus, and the moisture vaporators that may have inspired it, show technology does not have to be flashy or glamorous in order to help people. By focusing on seeing and fulfilling real world needs, the world can be made a much better place through invention and innovation.

Telepathic Control

March 6, 2015 12:56 pm
Telepathic Control

Photo courtesy of Blurppy.com

Telepathic Control - Image 4

Photo courtesy of Neurogadget.com

As time goes on, technology becomes more advanced, leaving many people without a full understanding of how to use the gadgets that fill their homes and workplaces. In many science fiction universes this problem has been addressed by creating ways for people to control machines with their thoughts, allowing them to tell a device exactly what they want it to do instead of worrying about controls. Besides simply allowing people to use technology better, telepathic control mechanisms are also used in science fiction to make machines that would be too complex to control through any other method feasible. An example of this is the gigantic Jaegers of Pacific Rim, which use a neural bridge between two pilots to allow the massive machines to move with a human level of grace.

The advantages of a telepathic control system are many and varied, but the one that would see the most use in daily life would be to make machines and computers easier and more intuitive to use. If a person could simply think a command and have the computer follow it, there would be no need for people to memorize complex sequences of commands. Another advantage would be that people would not need to learn a new interface for every program and device they use. The use of telepathic controls could also make computers smaller, by eliminating the need for mice and keyboards, and protect operators from injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Telepathic Control - Image 3

Photo courtesy of Joe-hutchinson.com

Making complex technology easier to use is one facet of telepathic control systems, but another even more exciting one appears when the technology is brought out of the home and workplace. Creating telepathic interfaces allowing people to control vehicles with their minds will improve reaction time and reduce accidents by freeing people from having to use bulky controls like steering wheels. The use of these control systems would also make vehicles otherwise be too difficult to control, such as giant robots, viable.

Controlling a machine with a person’s mind may seem far-fetched and bizarre, but modern scientists have already made significant strides to make this idea a reality. A German system currently under development, called Brainflight,allows an operator to control an aircraft through an EEG cap. The system is currently only being used with flight simulators, as opposed to actual planes, but it has so far showed a very high level of success. The pilots had varying levels of flight experience, and one had none whatsoever, but they were able to learn how to use this system with a high level of precision. Some were even able to perform low-visibility landings using only theirTelepathic Control - Image 2 thoughts. Similar systems are also being tested to drive cars through neural input. In some ways this technology is already more advanced than versions used in some science fiction stories, such as the implanted cyber-jacks Exosquad pilots used to control their Exoframes, and the promised future of telepathic controls will look more like Pacific Rim, with its drive helmets, than the Matrix’s headjacks.

The ability to use the mind to control machinery opens up all kinds of fascinating possibilities, from controlling emergency response robots from a safe distance to allowing quadriplegics to use technology more easily and precisely. As this technology continues to develop, the possibilities will continue to grow with it.

3D Printing the Future

February 20, 2015 12:05 pm
3D Printing the Future
Photo credit: www.decisionsdurables.com

It has been over a year since I talked about 3D printers on this blog, but the innovators who are focusing on this technology have been far from idle. Progress is constantly being made in this field and some recent headlines have perfectly highlighted some of the possibilities of 3D printing. We have barely scratched the surface of this exciting new frontier of manufacturing, but its potential is staggering.

The Future of 3D Printing is Limited Only By Our Imaginations Photo credit: http://factualfiction.com/marsartists/category/deep-space-industries/

The Future of 3D Printing is Limited Only By Our Imaginations
Photo credit: http://factualfiction.com/marsartists/category/deep-space-industries/

Back in September of last year, NASA sent a 3D printer up to the International Space Station (ISS). The idea was to test how a 3D printer and the objects it creates can stand up to the unique environment of micro gravity. Since the printer was installed, it has created a variety of different parts, including some not possible except in micro gravity. The ability to create objects on the International Space Station hints future space missions will not need to pack many mundane items with them, instead only needing a 3D printer and the raw materials to create the objects they need as they need them.

The first object printed in space shows some of the possibilities of this new technology, as astronauts printed an extruder plate, a part for the 3D printer itself, and then replaced the original with the newly created piece. This shows in the future astronauts will be able to print replacement parts as they need them, without having to wait for replacements to be shipped from Earth. There is even the possibility in the future all the parts of a 3D printer will be printable, meaning a space mission can bring one printer with them and create more for various tasks as they go.

Another exciting breakthrough was made in December of 2014, when NASA successfully e-mailed the first solid object to the ISS. After overhearing one of the astronauts discussing how he wished he had a ratchet, the engineers back on Earth quickly set to work designing one and transmitted the file to the ISS. Once the file was received, it was uploaded to the 3D printer on board. As soon as printing was finished, the astronauts began using the tool. This shows an enormous potential shift in thought, since it means future astronauts will not need to bring the schematics for tools they will need with them. They can be uploaded from Earth. This also means technicians and engineers can send astronauts the plans to build whatever part or tool they may need if mission parameters change or if an emergency situation comes up. This has the potential to make space missions more flexible, and also presents another level of safety in an environment where simple problems can quickly become life threatening.

The First Object E-Mailed to Space Photo credit: http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-

The First Object E-Mailed to Space
Photo credit: http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-

The utility of 3D printers to future astronauts cannot be overstated, but some companies are already planning to push the envelope even further. Although the technology is still in its infancy, there is already talk of using it to expand humanity’s reach in the solar system. The use of 3D printers, and the combination of weight saving and utility they offer, will be able to make space travel cheaper and easier than ever before. This will make industries that have long been discussed but never implemented, like asteroid mining, a very real possibility. Companies like Planetary Resources are already making plans to combine 3D printing technology with the almost limitless resources promised by asteroid mining. Its plan is to harvest resources from asteroids and immediately convert them into finished products through the use of 3D printing. The products, which could be anything from small handheld items to enormous components for the creation of space stations and even other spacecraft, would be much cheaper than similar parts that were created on Earth and launched into space. Access to these materials, which could be provided by manned or even robotic asteroid mining factories, is hoped to make future space exploration easier, cheaper, and safer.

3D printers have already shown their potential, both in outer space and in private homes, and we have barely begun to explore the myriad uses of these amazing machines. As time goes on and 3D printing technology becomes more advanced, the benefits they provide will increase exponentially as well.

Other Benefits of Advancing Technology

February 5, 2015 10:09 am
Other Benefits of Advancing Technology

Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Hello again science fiction fans. I apologize for my long absence, but I am back and will once more be bringing you news about exciting new technologies. However, in this week’s article I would like to take a different focus and examine an aspect of this topic I have rarely talked about. In previous articles I have discussed all kinds of technological innovation, from lasers, to regeneration technology and 3-D printing, and looked at the promise they hold. But, I have not looked at some of the side benefits that can come from advances in technology. This article was inspired by another article published several months ago in the Ottawa Citizen, discussing advances in manufacturing techniques that will allow Canadian companies to produce boron nitride nanotubes (or BNNTs) on a scale never possible before. This topic will serve as a perfect example of what I wish to discuss this week.

Other Benefits of Advancing Technology - Image 2

Photo courtesy of Nanotechweb.org

BNNTs are a new form of nanotube that provide many advantages over even carbon nanotubes, including greater stability and the ability to make them transparent. These advantages open up entirely new possibilities in materials science, including bulletproof windows and face shields for soldiers, stronger windshields for cars, and strengthening the materials used in daily construction. Materials like these have uses limited only by designer’s imaginations.

The discovery of new manufacturing techniques, and the ability to mass produce BNNTs, carries more far-reaching benefits than just use of the materials themselves. The first one is that these advances could lead to an entirely new manufacturing sector within Canada, as factories are built to produce these new materials. The availability of these new materials could also lead to the opening of new production lines to build goods that use BNNTs in their construction. The construction of these factories will lead to more jobs and an increase in exports, both of which are good for the Canadian economy. The demand for these products on a national and international stage will be enormous, which will allow Canada to win manufacturing contracts bringing in even more economic growth.

Having easy access to BNNTs, and the new materials that are created with them, will also likely draw innovators and inventors who wish to use them to Canada, which will further stimulate economic growth. The work performed by these experts will continue to increase the Canadian knowledge base regarding the use of these materials, and has the possibility of creating an entirely new industry within Canada, as new innovations and manufacturing processes continue to increase Canada’s understanding of this new technology.

Other Benefits of Advancing Technology - Image 3

Photo courtesy of Straightdope.com

If Canada can develop enough expertise and manufacturing ability to produce BNNTs and export them to other nations, this will give Canada a unique resource other nations do not have access to. This will allow Canada to approach the international bargaining table with an additional advantage, and will help to strengthen positive international relations with countries that wish to have access to our national BNNT expertise. In particular, this will help us to strengthen relations with our allies and approach international contracts on a stronger footing than we have in the past.

The advanced technologies I discuss throughout my articles will bring many breakthroughs in science and technology, and improve quality of life where they are used, but it is also important to remember they will impact the economic and political arenas as well. By ensuring we handle the use of these technologies, and the growth of the industries that create them, responsibly we can ensure Canada and the world as a whole will benefit from them.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” — Bug Zappers

August 11, 2014 2:34 pm
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” — Bug Zappers

Whether it is the Tyranids of Warhammer 40,000 or the Arachnids that menace humanity in Starship Troopers, a large number of science fiction series place humanity at odds with an insectoid menace eager to feed on innocent humans. While space faring insect invaders are pure science fiction we do not need to look to the stars to see human lives being threatened by bugs. In fact, the humble mosquito is estimated to be the deadliest animal on Earth through sheer number of deaths caused. The World Health Organization states that mosquitoes, and the diseases and parasites they carry, are the direct cause of over one million human deaths a year!

With a death toll this high it is easy to see why researchers are hard at work to find a way to prevent mosquitoes from harming people. Unfortunately, most methods of containing mosquito populations, like draining standing water and spraying insecticides, can cause a great deal of harm to the environment while others, like bed netting, only protect people to a limited degree.Bug Zapper Blog - Image 2

In order to provide effective and safe protection to people in areas where mosquito related deaths are common, scientists are beginning to examine more high-tech options. Possibly the most promising, and certainly most science fiction sounding, is known as the photonic fence by Intellectual Venture. This advanced technology combines a set of cameras and advanced computer algorithms wiBug Zapper Blog - Image 4th a small ultraviolet laser to defend an area from mosquitoes. When set up, the photonic fence is set to scan a certain area, creating a virtual fence. It then scans for insect movement using the attached camera. When an insect is detected the computer identifies it with enough accuracy to determine if the insect is a mosquito, and even if it is a male or female. Since female mosquitoes are the only ones to bite humans these are the only ones the system targets. When a target is identified the photonic fence fires an ultraviolet laser at it with just enough power and duration to kill the mosquito, like a mosquito specific sentry gun. In this way the photonic fence protects the area without killing harmless or beneficial insects, and poses no threat to humans or other animals.

When compared to conventional pesticides the improvements are obvious, and researchers believe the system will also be useful for protecting crops from damaging pests, and in other capacities. Improvements to the system are ongoing, but once it is completed Intellectual Venture believes that it will be able to be built with off the shelf components for around $50, and will power itself with solar power cells. Once this system is perfected it is likely to see rapid deployment, and the death toll caused by mosquitoes worldwide will drop as well. It would also certainly be handy to have one around the yard to keep out the pesky bugs.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction”–A New Light Shines on Lasers

July 10, 2014 12:00 pm
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction”–A New Light Shines on Lasers

It has been a long time since I last wrote about lasersone of the most common gadgets in science fiction–but that does not mean scientific interest in these devices has lessened. The opposite is true in fact, with new advances being made in this field on a constant basis. As some researchers work specifically on improving lasers, discoveries in other fields also help, providing breakthroughs that may provide an improvement to laser technology accidentally. As the efficiency and effectiveness of lasers increase, they will likely become even more common in daily life, both in fields where they are already used and in new ones where their limitations prevented them from being used before.

Lasers 2 Blog - Image 4

An example of one advancement in laser technology from another field is the recent discovery of a new material used to create lasers. This material, a mineral combination known as Perovskiteinvestigated for use in solar panels because of its efficiency in generating electricity from light, turned out to be just as efficient in the reverse. Both lasers and solar panels produced using this material will be cheaper and more efficient than current versions, promising these technologies will become even more widespread in the future.

Lasers 2 Blog - Image 2The creation of cheaper and more efficient lasers is a step forward, but it does not address one of the main problems holding laser technology back. Although lasers are widespread, the enormous power drain required to create lasers capable of cutting or burning through materials has limited their use in many applications. A way around this problem was recently discovered however, and may open up exciting possibilities for the use of laser technology. This system relies on a type of “quasi-particles” called polaritons, which require less energy to produce light than other methods to create a beam of light. The efficiency of these polaritons means a laser generated through this method requires 250 times less power than a standard laser. This astounding increase in efficiency would open up whole new avenues of laser research and could make the commonplace hand-carried laser weapons and tools of science fiction a reality.

Lasers 2 Blog - Image 3

The reality of science fiction style handheld laser rifles may be closer than we think. A company called S.P.A. Defense has already created a rifle-sized dazzling laser weapon called the TR3 Laser Rifle, which disorients the target with a laser beam. The laser has a range of one kilometre during the day and more than twice that at night, and can operate for 30 minutes of continuous firing before its internal batteries need to be recharged. The weapon also has settings that range from being mildly irritating to permanently blinding. Such weapons are outlawed for military use, but companies like S.P.A. Defense are proposing their adoption as a non-lethal way of disabling highjackers, pirates and others who flaunt such laws anyway. Regardless of whether these particular devices ever see service their creation, joined with massive leaps forwards in laser efficiency, the laser weapons of science fiction may soon become reality.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Solar Power

June 17, 2014 9:22 am
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Solar Power

As I have discussed several times in the past, one of the main issues that we are currently facing, and that limits our development into the future, is our need for renewable, safe, and sustainable ways of harvesting energy. By far one of the safest, cleanest, and most renewable sources of energy is the sun, the ultimate source of energy for almost every living thing on this planet. However, our ability to capture this energy has historically been very limited. Solar cells may be becoming more common around the world, to the extent that it is not uncommon to see businesses or even private homes with solar cells on their roofs, but there are still serious limitations to the use of solar energy on a wide scale.

Solar panels

The main issue with solar power using current technology is that it is highly inefficient. Solar panels create electricity using a phenomena known as the photovoltaic effect, where electrons in a material can absorb energy from light and become free in the form of electricity. While this process requires little expenditure of energy once the system is set up it is also highly inefficient. Current estimates is that solar cells can never go beyond 20% efficiency, meaning that 80% of the potentially useable energy is lost. This inefficiency means that solar energy farms need to be very large in order to generate a useful amount of energy. Solar cells can also only function in bright sunlight, meaning that they are useless at night, or even on cloudy days. Since many parts of the world have weather that is usually cloudy, the potential uses of solar power are limited. Despite these limitations research is still ongoing, and new breakthroughs are coming to light that might make this technology more useful in the years to come.

One advance is the creation of new types of solar power plants to improve efficiency, like the solar thermal plant at Australia’s CSIRO Energy Center. Instead of using sunlight to create electricity directly plants of this type use mirrors to reflect sunlight into a fluid system, boiling it and turning turbines to generate electricity. Recent breakthroughs with computer adjusted mirrors have allowed the CSIRO plant to improve efficiency and power generated enormously.

Solar Power Blog - Image 3

A second recent technological advance is increasing the spectrum of light that solar panels can use. Current solar panels use only the visible light spectrum, the light we can see with the naked eye, but researchers at Canada’s own University of Waterloo are working to allow solar cells to harvest infrared light as well. Infrared light reaches Earth alongside the visible light, and continues to radiate back from objects and the planet itself after the sun goes down, meaning a solar cell that collected both forms of light could continue to operate at night. There would also be a significant increase in efficiency, with researchers predicting a combination solar cell would be up to three times more efficient at producing electricity than a conventional one.

Even with the advent of new and more efficient solar cells the question of where to put them is a daunting one. The inventors at Solar Roadways have created a novel and unique solution. They have created a series of solar panels that are strong enough to resist the weight of the largest of trucks, and suggest that such a system could be used to line roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, and other areas that are currently made of concrete or asphalt. Each cell is hexagonal in shape, and modular for easy replacement. They contain solar cells, heating elements to melt snow and ice, LEDs to create road markings, and interior channels to transport stormwater or run cables through. There is also room for the technology to expand, and they hope to provide charging capabilities for electric cars, and even wireless charging later on, as well as the potential to use onboard sensors and LEDs to warn drivers of upcoming hazards. Their campaign is currently being funded on Indiegogo, meaning that ordinary people can contribute to bringing this unique invention into the real world, and shows people are becoming more involved with the technology they use throughout their lives.

Solar Power Blog - Image 4

Solar power may never become the world’s primary energy source, but any method of generating power safely, cleanly, and cheaply, is worthy of being explored, and with advances like these it seems like the future for solar power may be bright indeed.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Self-Charging Devices

June 5, 2014 9:45 am
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Self-Charging Devices

Whether on television, the big screen, or in a book, science fiction is known for its bewildering array of handheld gadgets. Besides the many amazing functions these devices possess they also seem to simply keep running forever. After all, when was the last time you saw someone on Star Trek change the battery in their Tricorder?

Cell phones, watches, portable computers, MP3 players, and many other portable electronic devices are becoming more and more common, and with new advancements like the Google Glass on the horizon this trend is certain to continue. All of these gadgets are limited by their power supply, and so the search for ways to make their charge last longer has been going on for some time. A lot of the focus has been on improving batteries by increasing their storage capacity and charging speed, but new advancements might lead to a new generation of portable devices that will never need to be charged, and whose owners will never have to worry about them running out of power. The plan is to fulfill this dream by creating devices that are capable of charging themselves while in use, eliminating charging stations forever.

self-charging devices blog - image 4

The technology that can make these self-charging devices possible is called the nanogenerator, which uses a combination of nanotechnology (which I have discussed in several previous articles) and piezoelectric components to a device to generate its own electricity completely independent of another power source. These amazing generators are built from zinc oxide nanowires or dots, which create an electrical charge when stressed. These are then placed on a piece of a polymer material that is also piezoelectric, allowing each nanogenerator to produce electricity from even the smallest movements or vibrations. Each one of these generators is tiny, roughly a quarter the size of a postage stamp, and as few as five of them stacked together can provide the same amount of energy as a pair of AA batteries. Nanogenerators convert vibrations, such as those of being carried, moved, or even breathed on, into electricity. This makes them perfect for watches, cellular phones, and other devices that are regularly carried around, but they would also be very useful in other electronics that are frequently moved while they are in use. Computer mice, TV remotes, and headphones could all make use of this technology as well, and that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Although astounding strides have been made in regards to nanogenerators the designers insist that they can be made even more efficient, even going so far as to say that future nanogenerators will be so sensitive to vibration that they will even be able to generate power from a human heartbeat, which will allow them to easily and safely power pacemakers and other implanted devices. On a larger scale it could one day be possible to power laptop computers through the vibration of the user typing, and massive arrays of nanogenerators could be used to replace current wind and hydroelectric power generators, as well as being used as a way to make vehicles more efficient. The sky is truly the limit for this technology, and new applications will continue to be found.

self-charging devices blog - image 3

Besides the many possible uses of this fascinating technology, nanogenerators have many other advantages compared to conventional batteries. Their ability to actively recharge the device they are mounted in means that they will last many times longer, and they are much lighter and more flexible than batteries. Another huge advantage is that the use of nanogenerators produces no waste or pollution, so this can be considered a truly green energy source. Nanogenerators were also remarkably efficient but recent advances are making them even more so, with newer versions being 40 times more efficient that earlier models.

The only limitation that has kept nanogenerators from making their way into daily use was the difficulty and expense in producing them, but these issues are now being resolved. New manufacturing techniques and materials are drastically decreasing the difficulty and cost of creating these astounding devices, and some researchers have even been able to genetically modify harmless viruses to produce the peizoelectric components needed to produce nanogenerators. Decreasing the cost and difficulty of creating these gadgets will allow them to make their way into the marketplace, and they are sure to usher in a new greener, more energy efficient future for everyone.

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Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Regenerative Plastics

May 14, 2014 12:56 pm
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Regenerative Plastics

A common factor of technology in science fiction is that it seems to last far longer than ours, and is able to stand up to much heavier punishment. While a modern cell phone can be rendered totally useless if it is dropped on too hard a surface, the gadgets, vehicles, and machines in science fiction are capable of surviving all kinds of harsh conditions. The search for a way to improve the durability of the items we use every day is the focus of a lot of research, and falls into two main camps. The first and simplest is making materials tougher and able to withstand more abuse, a field of research that has been making great strides through the use of nanotechnology, carbon nanotubes, and other amazing advances in material technology. Although these advances have done a lot to make materials more resistant to damage it does little once the damage is done. This is where the second area of this research, regeneration technology, comes in.

regenerative plastics blog - image 2

So far the ability to regenerate damage has mostly been confined to living organisms, but scientists are hoping to create machines that are capable of self-repair. From the simple and mostly off-camera regenerative abilities of the Transformers, to the dramatic and impressive repair capabilities of the T-1000, the machines of science fiction are able to continue despite the damage they suffer because they are able to heal it like a living creature could. For a long time this ability has been beyond the reach of scientists, but now these secrets are beginning to be unlocked. A particular focus of this research is on the creation of regenerative plastics, and several scientists have made breakthroughs in recent years.

One of these breakthroughs involves the creation of plastics that alert their users to damage. These involve changes to the chains that make up plastics, so that when they are broken by a scratch or impact they create a red stain on the plastic’s surface. In this way even damage that would normally be invisible can be seen by a casual inspector. This will be especially useful in fields where even small damage can be disastrous, like in the aerospace industry or the military. This plastic goes one step further though, as the chains are able to repair the breaks between them when exposed to bright or UV light, allowing repairing a small scratch to be as simple as leaving the plastic outside on a bright day. These smart plastics are an amazing achievement, but they are still not able to repair the type of major damage that leaves huge gaps or holes in a piece of plastic. Even with that type of damage, there is still hope though.

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Another form of regenerative plastic that is currently under development will be able to heal even large gaps, and will not require any outside stimulus to do so. This technique, spearheaded by researchers in Illinois, imitates natural healing techniques and applies them to plastic. In this technique the plastic is formed with two sets of hollow capillaries within its structure, each of which is then filled with a regenerative chemical. When damage occurs the chemicals within the capillaries mix, creating a gel that flows into the hole and then hardens to the consistency of the surrounding plastic, sealing the gap entirely. A similar technique uses small capsules imbedded in the material. This technology will allow plastics to repair much larger gaps, and when the two techniques are combined together the result will be a new type of plastic that will be able to withstand a huge amount of abuse and still retain its shape and strength.

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These regenerative plastics are amazing, and when combined with new research aimed at creating plastics that seek to imitate or even improve on the strength of steel we are sure to see plastic materials in a whole new way, and they may even become one of our main building materials. Other research towards creating plastic out of environmentally friendly, and even bio-degradable, materials and techniques will only further cement plastic’s role as one of the materials of the future.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Monowheels

April 29, 2014 9:16 am
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Monowheels

One of the technologies that crops up in science fiction a lot, despite their apparent flaws, is the monowheel or powered unicycle. Although their appearances may change the core concept of these vehicles is that the rely on only a single wheel for movement, instead of the traditional two or four. At first glance these vehicles seem like simply whimsical ideas confined to the screen or the pages of science fiction stories, but the fact that companies are already building them suggests they have at least some merit.

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When it comes to one wheel vehicles there are two main types, the first of which is the monowheel. This type of vehicle comprises one gigantic wheel which the rider sits inside of, and is operated from a seated posture, like the ones seen in the third Men in Black or Star Wars movies. Although poorly known, real versions of these vehicles have existed since the 1800’s, with pedal and hand cranked versions eventually being replaced with motorized models. A few modern versions even exist, though they are usually limited to enthusiasts and use at festivals. Although these bikes are functional and road-worthy they do have some major drawbacks, such as limited carrying capacity, poor handling, and visibility issues. There are also safety concerns such as tipping over or “gerbiling,” where a sudden brake or acceleration can cause the drive to ride up the inside of the wheel, likely causing a dangerous fall. Due to these issues and the novelty of the design few people use them in their daily lives.

 

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Another area of exploration is what I will refer to as the “monobike,” since calling them powered unicycles does not seem to due these advanced machines justice. The concept of the monobike is that it is ridden like a regular motorcycle, but with only one wheel. This reduces the size of the bike and makes it more fuel efficient, and many of these machines are designed to be totally electric. These designs range from halfway between models like the Uno, which has two wheels placed right next to each other, to the Audi A M or Ryno, both of which are electric monobikes. The secret to the creation of monobikes is the use of an advanced gyroscopic stabilization system that keeps them upright, similar to the system used in Segways. These vehicles promise a sporty, fuel-efficient and cheap transportation solution, though their small size means there may be some safety concerns to be addressed before they become common and steering can take some getting used to.

The use of gyroscopes is not limited to Segways and monobikes however, and has even extended into the creation of single wheeled electric skateboards. All of these single wheeled vehicles may appear to be novelties right now, but it is possible that in the future they will become a common form of transportation. Only time will tell.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Telerobotics

April 17, 2014 12:00 pm
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Telerobotics

In the past I have spoken about both autonomous robotic drones and power armour suits that are operated by the person wearing them. However some films, such as Surrogates and Iron Man 3 explore the idea of merging the two, creating robots that can be remotely controlled as if a person was wearing them. This concept, known as telerobotics, is based around the idea of combining the functionality, strength, and durability of a robot, with the precision and judgment of a human operator without placing that operator in harms way. The main difference is that a robotic drone is piloted much like an airplane or driven like a car, whereas telerobotic units are controlled directly through a much more sophisticated interface that mimics the humanoid form.

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The use of telerobotics started as early as the 1940’s, when researchers used remotely operated mechanical limbs to work with hazardous or radioactive materials. Similar technology has also been used in submersibles for decades. The technology has evolved significantly from that time however, and its most common use is now in robotic surgical devices, such as the Da Vinci SI, which allow surgeons to operate on a patient who is hundreds of kilometers away through the use of remotely controlled robotic limbs. The size and shape of these limbs also mean they can be inserted into the patient’s body without large incisions, making surgeries less traumatic and reducing recovery times and complications significantly. One of the key advantages of these devices is that it allows patients in areas without specialized surgeons to be operated upon, opening up the possibility of medical care that they would otherwise be without.

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Although remotely controlled manipulators are common in science fiction the more impressive use of telerobotics in films is the creation of robots that imitate the human range of motion and allow their operators to experience the world as if they were in the robot’s place, such as the surrogates in the movie of the same name, or the remotely operated Iron Man suit in Iron Man 3. Although these technologies are still in their infancy progress is being made, such as the Telebot which is being built to help return disabled military veterans and police officers to their jobs. This humanoid robot is remotely controlled through the use of a virtual reality headset and haptic feedback gear, allowing an operator to respond to situations as if they were standing in the robot’s place. The system was designed to help soldiers or police officers who became disable in the line of duty to return to a similar job, operating a robot instead of walking a patrol route themselves. In this way the streets are still kept safe and people who would otherwise be forced into retirement due to their injuries are able to retain their jobs. There is still a great deal of work to be done, especially when it comes to reducing the lag time of the robot’s response to commands, but the design is very promising.

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Although telerobotics will likely never replace everyday human life as it does in the Surrogates film, this field offers many opportunities to help people who have been disabled, save lives by performing surgery remotely, and allow robots to take over for humans in dangerous fields like firefighting without removing the human element.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Zeppelins and Airships 2

April 2, 2014 9:50 am
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Zeppelins and Airships 2

Last year I discussed advances in the creation of modernized airships and zeppelins, and in the last year these advances have not slowed down. In fact, improvements in technology and infrastructure have made the creation of fleets of airships a very real possibility.

Although zeppelins have some disadvantages when compared to airplanes, mainly due to their lower speed, there are many areas where these are far outweighed by the benefits. The main advantages of zeppelins are their ability to carry very large loads at relatively high speeds with very high fuel efficiency. The use of lighter than air gasses to produce lift means that the zeppelins do not need to reach as high speeds as other aircraft in order to maintain altitude, and expend much less fuel due to their lower weight. The new generation of zeppelins, such as the Airlander 10 and Aeroscraft, are being specially designed with cargo lifting in mind. The largest proposed Aeroscraft airship would be have a cargo bay that is 455 ft. long and is capable of carrying 500 tons. This is twice as much as the largest cargo aircraft in the world, the Antonov AN-225 (best known for carrying the Russian space shuttle!). This massive cargo capacity will be extremely useful in all fields that require transportation, and in combination with the vehicle’s high fuel efficiency it has the chance of revolutionizing the air transport industry. These are not the airship’s only outstanding feature however.

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As an airship the Aeroscraft will have an operating speed of over 100 miles per hour, which is over four times that of the average cargo container ship, and thus will be a faster way to carry material over the ocean. This speed does not come close to matching cargo planes, but the increase in lifting capacity and other advantages more than make up for this. The other enormous advantage of airships is that they are capable of making very short take-offs and landings, with the Airlander 10 needing less than its own length to land and the Aeroscraft being able to take off and land completely vertically. These airships are also able to land on any fairly level surface (including calm water), and the Aeroscraft will even be able to load and unload cargo while hovering over land or sea! The advantages of this are far reaching, and will cut entire links out of the supply chain by allowing goods to be shipped directly from their starting point to their endpoint, with no need for intermediary transportation.

The ability to carry supplies directly to where they are needed is one of the largest advantages of airships, and is key in the main areas where they will likely be used, like disaster relief, emergency response, and military resupply. Instead of relying on airfields and time consuming ground transit an airship would be able to carry supplies and personnel directly to where they are needed, whether that is a disaster area or a forward military base. This will mean that supplies reach their destination much more safely and directly than before, which could mean saving hundreds of lives in the wake of a natural disaster, and can reach areas that have no airfields or where runways have been damaged. The addition of other equipment would allow airships to replace specialty vehicles like water bombers as well, helping to put out forest fires more easily and efficiently than aircraft can manage.

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Besides the many potential uses when it comes to transportation, some people have already envisioned other potential uses for zeppelins. One of the major ones is tourism and luxury air travel. In a revival of the original dream for these air vehicles, people like Mac Byers believe that a zeppelin’s smooth ride, long transit time, and heavy carrying capacity will allow them to become the cruise ships of the sky. Concepts such as his Aether airship show that the idea of an sky cruise may soon be a very real alternative over an ocean bound one, and would allow those on board to see the many sights deep inland that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Although the early history of airships and zeppelins contains notable tragedies it seems that the advent of new technologies and safety procedures will guarantee these massive air vessels a bright future.

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Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Chainswords

January 31, 2014 9:16 am
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Chainswords

Chainsaws are very useful tools in many situations, but in science-fiction, they are generally shown in a very different role. From the chainswords and chainaxes used throughout Warhammer 40,000 to the chainsaw bayonets from the Gears of War series, chainsaws in science-fiction are more often shown as weapons than tools. Since they are used in this way throughout fiction, it might surprise some people that chainsaws are not used in combat by any world military; however, there are reasons for this. Unlike many of the science-fiction technologies I have discussed before, the technology to create chainsaws is well understood and the results are very effective. The reasons they are confined to use as tools are based on more practical concerns.

One of the biggest reasons that chainsaws are not seen in combat is simply that most combat now happens outside of melee range. A soldier armed with a chainsaw would be an easy target for an enemy with any type of ranged weapon, which is the same reason that bayonets are only issued as weapons of last resort. Even as a back-up weapon, a chainsaw has many practical disadvantages over something like a bayonet. A chainsaw is heavy and loud, meaning that someone wielding one as a weapon would be more obvious and considerably slower than someone with a bayonet or knife. Since stealth and speed are vital on the battlefield, these are considerable disadvantages. Another serious drawback is that chainsaws require fuel, which increases weight, throws off balance and creates the possibility of a soldier being left with what is essentially a very awkward metal paddle if the fuel runs out.

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Besides the physical problems with carrying a chainsaw into battle, there is also the issue of the danger it presents to the user. A chainsaw is not a safe tool: the cutting edge is a toothed chain that rotates at very high speeds, and if used in combat it would be almost as dangerous for the user as it would be for the enemy. People who use chainsaws in their professions, such as lumberjacks, are slowly and carefully sawing through stationary targets, while using a chainsaw in combat means swinging it around very quickly at a moving target. The potential for the user to accidentally catch himself on the blade is very high. This could be alleviated somewhat by placing a guard over half the blade, but that would also mean half the weapon could not effectively be used. Swinging a chainsaw around would also increase the risk of kickback, a phenomenon where a chainsaw pushes backwards towards its operator. This could obviously lead to disaster. Even assuming everything went right for the user, a chainsaw requires being pressed firmly against the target in order to cut properly, and so the type of quick slashes used in combat would not provide the spectacular results usually seen in fiction.

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Chainsaws are also not as effective as one might think on the battlefield because of what they would be used against. Even wet wood or sap can clog up a chainsaw’s chain and prevent it from working, so using it on a wet and muddy battlefield against a soft target would be a recipe for disaster. Using a chainsaw against a hard target such as an armored vehicle, would be even worse because of the risk of the chain breaking. A chainsaw chain is rotating at very high speed, and so when it breaks it lashes out, and likely strikes the operator. Chainsaws are designed to cut through wood, not metal, and so unless special chains and motors were designed, using them as such would likely be disastrous.

On the whole, chainsaws are dangerous and temperamental devices that are impractical for use on the battlefield in any capacity beyond combat engineering roles. Despite how they are portrayed in fiction, chainsaws are not a super-weapon capable of defeating any foe. In fact, such a weapon would be just as likely to maim or kill the person using it as his enemies.

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Space Marine Bolters: Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction”

January 14, 2014 8:52 am
Space Marine Bolters: Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction”

Of all the weapons used in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the bolter is the most famous. One of the iconic images of the franchise, these terrifying weapons are wielded by the power-armored space marines to destroy Mankind’s enemies. These heavy rifle-like weapons fire self-propelled .75-calibre rockets called bolts, each with an explosive payload designed to detonate after penetrating a target’s armor. These weapons come in many varieties, including squad support and vehicle-mounted versions, and all are feared and respected by any foe who must face the space marines.bolter blog - image 2

A gun that fires rockets or even missiles may seem far-fetched, but this type of system was already in development as early as the 1960s. An example of this research that made it into production was the MGM-51 Shillelagh weapon system. This weapon, designed to be used as the primary weapon for a new generation of battletanks, was built to fire conventional rounds and launch specially-built missiles. This weapon system was most notably mounted on the M551 Sheridan tank, and was created after concerns were raised that improvements in tank armor would make all but the largest guns ineffective. The idea was to create an effective long-range anti-armor weapon, and the hope was that it could eventually be used to attack helicopters and other low-flying aircraft as well. The idea was intriguing, but problems with the size of the missiles, issues with their guidance systems, and reliability problems with the guns themselves meant that most tanks equipped with this weapon system relied on conventional rounds and were not even equipped with the missiles. In all, it is believed that less than a dozen of these missiles were ever fired in combat. Several other gun-launched missiles have been created for use in battle tanks, like the Russian Svir, but none have been successful enough to replace conventional shells.

The Shillelagh was not the only attempt to create a rocket-firing gun that came out of the 1960s, however. A series of handheld rocket-firing weapons called gyrojets were also built during roughly the same timeframe. These weapons were similar in operation to the space marine’s bolter: a pistol, carbine or rifle that fired a self-propelled shell, but failed to live up to their promise of revolutionizing warfare. One of the main reasons for this was that the weapons attempted to introduce too many changes from conventional guns at once. Besides the use of self-propelled rounds, gyrojet weapons used a novel firing system: a hammer struck the round from the front in order to drive it onto the firing pin. The spin-stabilized rocket ammunition had problems of its own, mainly due to poor quality control when it was manufactured. These issues included a susceptibility to moisture, clogged vents causing severe accuracy problems, and many rounds simply failing to ignite at all. The main advantages of the gyrojets were that the weapons were light, and when the ammunition worked properly it had high accuracy and stopping power to a long range, although this advantage was partially outweighed by the time it took each round to reach full velocity, as the rocket motor took some time before it reached high enough velocity to even penetrate cardboard. A few gyrojet pistols and rifles were sent to Vietnam with American troops, but they were of little use there, and now they are mainly seen as valued collectors’ items rather than the groundbreaking weapons they were meant to be.

There are some advantages to guns that fire self-propelled rounds, especially with modern miniaturization and computer technology, but the failures of previous attempts at bolter blog - image 4creating these weapons have mainly prevented further attempts. So far, it also seems that the possible advantages of such a weapon do not merit further research when conventional firearms serve well enough. The advent of such breakthrough technologies as guided bullets have likely put the nail in the coffin of this type of weapon, as it seems like most of the advantages of a self-propelled round can be achieved without the problems inherent in them.

Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Orbital Drops / Boosting the Danger Quotient

January 3, 2014 10:07 am
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – Orbital Drops / Boosting the Danger Quotient

Whether it is through the use of individualized drop pods, reinforced armor suits, “gravity chutes,” impact-resistant gel, or even good old-fashioned parachutes, orbital drops are a common event in many pieces of military science-fiction. This maneuver is a more high- tech version of the conventional air drop, in which brave soldiers are dropped from orbit in order to land directly near an important objective or in the midst of enemy territory. In some versions of this tactic, vehicles or supplies are also dropped from orbit, allowing them to be delivered directly to where they are most needed by troops on the ground. The tactical implications of this are enormous, as they allow military assets to be placed at the point where they would have maximum impact without the need to move them across hostile territory or through dangerous airspace. This capability would allow for almost total surprise and the ability to respond instantly to enemy offensives. Being able to deploy people or supplies this way would also be very helpful in civilian life, allowing doctors or medical supplies to be sent to areas of need with no delay.

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In fiction, the two most common methods of orbital drops are armored drops and drop pods. Armor drops consist of power-armored troopers (which I have discussed in several earlier blogs) and their larger giant robot cousins simply being dropped from orbit, as in the video game ‘Section 8’ or the Roughnecks Starship Troopers television series. In these cases, the dropped units are equipped with jets or thrusters that allow them to slow down before impact, preventing them from smashing into the ground at terminal velocity. The more common type of orbital drop is accomplished through the use of drop pods, specialized capsules that safely carry their payload to the surface. These drop pods usually carry only a single occupant, like those used by the Halo series’ Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, or can be large enough to carry entire squads or large vehicles, like those used by Warhammer 40,000’s Space Marines. These pods are launched singly or in large numbers, safely conveying their occupants to the battlefield and then opening to allow them to quickly disembark. The advantage of these drop pods is that they are much more versatile and can be used without the need to rely on powered armor or robot vehicles.

Enormous tactical and logistical advantages can be gained from the ability to deploy soldiers directly from orbit to any location on the ground, but using such a technique poses many problems when relying on modern technology. The main one is simply getting people into orbit in the first place. Reaching orbit is still a difficult, expensive and time-consuming venture, and it is simply not feasible to transport military assets into space simply to bring them back down again. Reentry is also still very dangerous, and potential hazards in space mean that it is impossible to leave soldiers and equipment on standby in orbit just in case they are needed. Since planning a space mission currently takes months of preparation time, this means that most of the benefits of orbital insertions would be negated.

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Besides the proposed US Military “Sustain” project, an old proposal for creating manned spacecraft to carry marines to warzones within hours, very few attempts have been made to address the idea of orbital deployment of military assets. The closest thing that exists to this science-fiction trope is high-altitude military drops. These drops are classified as HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) or HAHO (High Altitude High Opening), depending on how long the soldiers wait before opening their parachutes. In these techniques, the soldiers leave the plane at a very high altitude in order to keep the plane safe from enemy fire, parachuting in for maximum stealth. When the parachutes are opened is determined by the needs of the mission, with HAHO jumps being quieter and allowing more travel distance, and HALO jumps being faster and minimizing exposure to enemy fire. Although they may sound similar to common parachute drops, these operations entail many additional risks, due to the height from which soldiers must fall.

 

HALO and HAHO jumpers are at risk of hypothermia and suffocation due to the cold temperatures and lack of breathable air at those altitudes. To combat these dangers, soldiers wear thermal clothing and oxygen masks when performing high-altitude jumps. Another more subtle risk is decompression sickness, a problem that is usually associated with scuba divers. This painful and potentially fatal complication is caused by gas bubbles forming in the bloodstream, where they can block blood flow to vital organs. To prevent this from occurring, soldiers spend 30 to 45 minutes breathing pure oxygen in order to remove all nitrogen (the gas that usually causes decompression sickness) from their blood. Once this is complete, they are equipped with a small oxygen tank and are then ready to jump. The risks, necessary training and expense mean that these types of parachute deployments are only used when necessary, such as when advanced reconnaissance teams or special forces units are deployed into enemy territory.

Orbital drops will likely remain an element of science-fiction until space travel becomes feasible and commonplace, but in the meantime, parachute drops will fill a similar role throughout the world’s militaries. Although this may seem less exciting for sci-fi fans, even routine parachute drops are very risky, and adding the hazards of high altitudes boosts the danger quotient significantly.

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Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – 3D Printing

December 12, 2013 9:55 am
Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – 3D Printing

Advances in technology are most often applied to the manufacturing sector. Whether it involves new materials, more advanced construction techniques, plasma or nanotechnology, this sector is quick to adapt to the possibilities offered by new technologies. Although the materials and techniques of manufacturing may change, the role it plays in society has remained static for centuries, with large factories making products for mass consumption. However, new technologies are available that may change the way goods are made.

In my nanotech manufacturing blog, I mentioned 3D printers in passing, but the potential of these devices deserves a more in-depth exploration. 3D printers work on the same principle as conventional ink printers, laying down material in order to create a structure, but these printers differ in material and function. While conventional printers work by laying ink down onto a piece of paper, a 3D printer extrudes solid material in a three- dimensional pattern in order to create a free-standing object. Most current 3D printers use extruded plastic, but other materials are also possible and provide different advantages and disadvantages. When in operation, a 3D printer uses a mechanical arm to lay down the material in whatever shape is desired. This technology has existed for some time, but it is only recently that advancements have made them commercially affordable. Although high-quality 3D printers are usually in the thousands of dollars range, this price is drastically decreasing, to the extent where a recent Kickstarter offered a kit for backers to build their own 3D printer for $325. As this technology becomes cheaper, easier to use, and more precise, it opens up many exciting possibilities.

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One of the huge advantages of 3D printing is that it allows people to affordably create personalized items singly or in small batches. Where before it would be extremely expensive to create molds or manufacturing templates to produce an item, now anyone who has access to a 3D printer and a computer file containing their creation can build it. This offers unique possibilities to individuals and businesses, allowing entirely new business models that did not exist before. An example of this is a sadly postponed Kickstarter project for the creation of models and miniatures. The plan for this business is to affordably allow people to create personalized models to their specifications, rather than relying on store-bought kits. This offers many new and exciting possibilities for people interested in model-building.

3D printing offers many possibilities for people who want to create personalized products, but it offers even more benefits to fields where each product was already custom-made. An unexpected use of this technology can be seen in the fashion industry, with some companies producing fully articulated plastic dresses. However, an even more surprising example of this is in the medical field, which is already seeing many uses for this technology. Due to the difference in size and body shape, many things in the medical field must be built specifically for a single patient, and 3D printing offers a way to do this more easily and less expensively. Even something as simple as a cast must be fitted to an individual person, but 3D printing is already offering a way to make casts that are lighter, less confining, and allow access to the limb. This is done by printing a plastic latticework that is placed around the broken limb, providing the support of a cast that fits perfectly and does not cause the discomfort of conventional casts.

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Another area of medicine where customization is vital is in the creation of artificial limbs. The use of 3D printing allows a much cheaper and faster method of creating a replacement limb; new versions may be easily crafted as the user grows. An example of this is a man who created a 3D printed prosthetic hand for his son that only cost $10, in comparison to conventional versions that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. 3D printing is also being suggested for reducing the cost and time of creating glass eyes, and has even been used in the veterinary field to provide a duck with a prosthetic foot. Medical researchers even hope to combine 3D printing technology with cultured cells in order to create replacement organs for people with serious injuries.

This technology also offers interesting possibilities in the research and education fields, such as combining 3D printing with x-ray or magnetic scanners in order to print an anatomically accurate replica skeleton of an animal that is still alive. Some medical personnel believe that this technology can be used on individual patients in order to allow doctors to closely examine a damaged organ without requiring surgery.

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The ceiling is truly the limit for 3D printing technology, and as it becomes cheaper and more easily available, it stands a very real chance of changing the entire manufacturing industry. Instead of buying generic goods, 3D printing allows people to create customized versions in their own homes, as well as offering possibilities to fields like medicine and education that have never existed before.

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