October 1, 2016
- Technology’s influence on geopolitics plays out over the course of decades, but taking note of smaller advancements along the way can help measure the progress of emerging or disruptive technologies.
- Various sectors achieve minor but regular successes that may not result in a new commercial product but nonetheless constitute progress in emerging technologies.
- Even if a specific advancement does not reach commercialization, the knowledge gained through its achievement can move other research closer to realizing that goal.
Technology and geopolitics are unequivocally intertwined. Throughout history, new technologies have had the power to change the world order. In the coming decades, any number of emerging fields and technologies — including automated vehicles, blockchain, advanced manufacturing, robotics, additive manufacturing, precision agriculture and genetic engineering — could alter how the world and its inhabitants work. But technological development does not happen overnight. On the road to full commercialization, an emerging technology sector will encounter numerous breakthroughs and almost as many failures. Developments in supportive industries such as materials science — the study of materials and their synthesis, processing, structural elucidation, properties, and performance — meanwhile, can be just as important to the progress of disruptive technologies. Once limited to traditional materials, the sector has grown in recent years to include newer fields such as nanotechnology. Discovering new materials — or new information about old ones — can facilitate progress in a variety of sectors, including electronics, energy, and the military, to name a few.
In a broad sector such as materials science, the sheer number of announcements of progress can be overwhelming. Understanding the constraints that a developing technology must overcome — be it cost, consistent manufacturing technique or better performance levels — helps make sense of the noise. Even if a report claims that a product or process has cleared an important hurdle, depending on what stage it is in, the victory might be fleeting. Plenty of great ideas get lost in the shuffle between discovery and commercialization. A closer look at some of the advancements that have been made in materials science over the past month underscores the relationship between technology and geopolitics and highlights some the most promising signs of progress in technologies that may still be years away from maturity.
Military: Russia Harnesses High-Heat Ceramics
Though Russia’s research and development sector has suffered overall as highly skilled workers leave the country and funding remains scarce, the defense industry has mostly escaped the brain drain. Russian scientists announced Aug. 22 that they had developed a new ceramic capable of withstanding ultra-high temperatures. The material, a multilayer combination of hafnium carbide and zirconium diboride, still needs to undergo rigorous testing to determine its resistance to heat, fracturing, and degradation. Depending on its performance, it could help the Russian military in establishing its hypersonic program. (Ceramics are a natural fit for hypersonic applications, thanks to their strength, lightweight, and heat tolerance.) As Russia continues to play catch-up with the United States and China on this front, its emphasis on ceramics comes as no surprise.
Energy: A Better Battery
Throughout the month of August, several academic and mainstream articles were published describing new material combinations that could improve the performance of batteries, fuel cells, and solar cells. Different research groups around the world unveiled and demonstrated new types of batteries. In Canada, for instance, chemists developed a zinc-ion battery that uses new material combinations to achieve a low-cost, nontoxic alternative to existing battery options. Because they require less sensitive fabrication conditions, zinc-ion batteries are one of several candidates that could eventually eclipse lithium-ion batteries as the industry standard. A joint effort between Japanese and American researchers also yielded a promising advancement in battery technology: a silicon nanomaterial that could take the place of carbon-based electrodes in lithium-ion batteries, potentially increasing their capacity and lifespan. Another Japanese collaboration with U.S. government labs discovered a polymer-based material that could be used to create low-cost fuel cells that operate at lower temperatures under a wider range of conditions than existing systems can. Each of these advances could contribute to the slow but steady shift in energy technology.
Electronics: Keeping Up With Moore’s Law
As computing and connectivity become more and more integrated into daily life, computing or processing capacity, in keeping with Moore’s Law, will only continue to grow. At some point, traditional materials and structures (for instance, silicon microchips) will have reached their limits. A relatively new material, graphene, has long been touted as a possible solution, but scientists have struggled to find a way of preserving its unique properties during manufacturing. Last month, however, Japanese researchers announced a new process to restore defective graphene oxide structures that could be applied on a commercial scale.
From the Lab to the Market
As tempting as it might be to hail any of these new developments as game-changers, only time will tell. Many of the new materials and processes were discovered in university or government labs, and they still face a long and convoluted journey before they (or their successors) become commercial products. As they try to make the leap from laboratory discovery to a commercial product, these technologies will encounter a host of other challenges. Funding for further development can be hard to find, and more practical matters like manufacturing and scale-up — difficult engineering tasks in their own right — can also get in the way. Given the various crucibles that await all of these nascent developments, it is virtually impossible to predict which of them — if any — will succeed. Becoming a viable product is a difficult step for developing technologies, and many do not make it. Even if they do eventually see the light of day, they would need to be widely adopted and incorporated to attain geopolitical significance. Nonetheless, taking note of these products as they emerge allows us to monitor their progress.
Furthermore, just because a product or process fails does not mean that it is not important. As the old adage goes, knowledge is power. Each discovery, regardless of its eventual outcome, contributes to a growing pool of information that, in turn, propels its field forward, one incremental step at a time.
— Disruptive Technology: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants is republished with permission of Stratfor.