Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stone, Bronze, Iron, Steel...

I find it interesting that we use materials to name the earlier reaches of time: The iron age, the bronze age... Plenty of other variables could be used to divide history, but the materials used to build technology are a very significant, and in particular visible, choice. What would you call the current age? We once went by the Nuclear Age, but that was far from a revolutionary change. Nuclear energy is just another power source, anonymous through our electric grid. Perhaps fission will deserve an age, driving us across the galaxy, but that's all the future.

Nuclear points the way to electricity, and the selection of the Electronic Age feels appropriate. That ephemeral bolt of energy, so recently understood, is a nice nod to the unprecedented growth in scientific knowledge we've seen. Plentiful power, shipped all across the landscape, revolutionized life as fully as anything since agriculture. It's been transforming us since the later acts of the Industrial Revolution, now getting a second run at revolution with the advent of computers and the Internet.

If this is the Electronic Age, what comes next? I suspect an appropriate name will be the Carbon Age, when that plentiful element bends to our whim. After as fundamental a character as the electron, it does feel like a step backwards to move up in size to element, but what can be done? The quark, the gluon, the photon: they're such wispy, enigmatic things. No, Carbon is my candidate, bridging the gap between the macro and the micro-scale.

For one thing, there's this structure, the carbon nanotube:

Unroll it and you've got graphene; these materials have pretty unbelievable properties. If you want to build an elevator to outer-space, the carbon nanotube is just about your only option for the tether. And it now looks like it's going to have a role powering nanotechnology. Researches coated carbon nanotubes in explosives, then ignited one end. While an explosion normally radiates energy in all directions, the nanotube caught the heat and channeled it down its length. The first cool thing that happened was the heat, moving uni-directionally, traversed the nanotube 10,000 times faster than in a regular explosion. From our old friend F=MA, a faster explosion is a more powerful explosion.

On it's own, this would be pretty cool and useful. But something else happened: This wave of heat managed to catch hold of the electrons in the nanotube. You could visualize the electrons as buoys floating in the ocean: waves pass them by and they bob up and down in place. But if a large enough wave (a tidal wave, perhaps) were to flow past, the buoys would get caught up in the motion and wash away. It turns out this heat wave did just that, driving the electrons out the other end of the nanotube. This was something scientists didn't expect could happen. The explosive coated nanotube generated about 100 times the electricity of a battery, by weight. Additionally, while a battery slowly loses energy as it sits unused, there's no obvious reason the nanotube couldn't hold on to its electrical potential for decades if not millenia.

The downside is that the nanotube is not easily reusable like a battery: to generate more energy a new coating of explosives would need to be applied (or potentially pumped into the nanotube as a gas). It's also not clear whether you could scale this up to say, power your house. But we've already got solutions for powering the macroscopic world: this breakthrough is revolutionary for what it could allow in the microscopic realm. Traditional engines do not scale well downwards. Being able to generate electricity at the atomic scale is the first step to being able to construct things on the atomic scale: another small step towards nanobots. Being able to instruct agents to work on the atomic scale could be the key to revolutionizing manufacture, scanning and understanding our brain, stopping cancer and heart attacks, and even colonizing space. Carbon is a great building block, easy to structure into all different shapes, and will likely play a major role in future miniaturization.

Which is half of why I believe the next age will be the Carbon Age. The other reason is a nod to our status as carbon-based lifeforms. Our understanding of DNA continues to grow, and the technology to read and manipulate genes is plummeting in price. Scientists are already starting to custom build bacteria, you may fill your car with gasoline derived from oil that a custom build bacteria produced. If we can bend life itself to our whim, creating never before seen creations to serve our needs, we'll have entered a new phase of futurism in human evolution. This is a topic I'll revisit in more depth later.

Goodbye Electronic Age, hello Carbon Age.

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