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New Technology, Old Science

Few people distinguish between science and technology -- they are considered two sides of a single coin. Yet, as closely as they are linked, they are distinctly different items. Technology is the appl...


December 1, 2006
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Few people distinguish between science and technology — they are considered two sides of a single coin. Yet, as closely as they are linked, they are distinctly different items. Technology is the application of a tool to perform a function. Very often, especially in modern times, this technology is considered to be a result of new science, such as computers, electronics and the Internet. However, these developments are really based on very old science — scientific principles that have been known for decades or even centuries. Technology can come from any source, as long as it results in a useful tool.

Science is not focused on making tools — it is a tool, used to acquire and organize knowledge of the world around us. Often, science can be years, decades or even centuries ahead of our ability to apply it as technology. Some science would require the ability to manipulate masses larger than earth and use energy greater than our sun’s output.

However, there are some new developments coming that may impact the way in which we live and work as much or more than computers and the Internet.

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Nanotechnology seeks to use the properties of nanoscale materials to accomplish tasks in an easier or cheaper way, or even those that might not be possible otherwise. Although there has been talk in the media of making microscopic machines or engines, the reality is that nanotechnology will show more in enhanced materials able to do far more than ever considered possible. Examples could be electronics incorporated into clothing, bearings coated with microscopically thin layers of diamond or buildings powered by cheap, durable, super-efficient solar cells. Imagine pumps and bearings that never wear out, or a house that does not need to be connected to a power grid.

Paprican has been working on nanotechnology for years, with a new program on nanocrystalline cellulose or NCC in the past two years. This last is a very hot topic — Google gives almost 100,000 hits for ‘nanocrystalline cellulose,’ with work being done by most major research institutes involved in either nanotechnology or wood products. Much of the work discussed in the media refers to carbon nanotubes, used as a reinforcing agent in composites or as starting materials for other products. However, there are problems with carbon nanotubes, as they are hydrophobic, making them unsuitable for some uses and may share some toxicity properties with asbestos. NCC is hydrophilic, making it easier to handle in simple water-based systems and perhaps making it more suitable for biological applications — a major area for nanotechnology. And nanotechnology is not just in the future, there are many products using this technology now: much sports gear, most portable electronics, car wax, stain-repellent clothing and many medical devices. Nanotechnology is expected to impact our world as much, or more than, computers and the Internet.

How about test tube computers that can solve problems in seconds that would be impossible for even the most powerful of today’s computers to do in years? Quantum computers use the quantum properties of atoms or ions in gas or liquid form to perform calculations. The advantages are that they are cheap, fast and amenable to types of computations that are not possible with conventional digital computers.

There have been recent breakthroughs in the energy efficiency of the human gait; artificial muscles that exert 500 times as much force as human muscles, super-sensitive skin and noses, as well as artificial intelligence mounted in computers close to the efficiency of a human brain. Together these point to the possibility of an android-style robot in the very near future.

The ‘cloaking’ invisibility shown in Star Trek may not be impossible — several types of invisibility have been demonstrated on the microscopic scale and the developers claim there is no reason to assume it cannot be applied to larger objects. These techniques could be applied on an industrial scale: Imagine towers and stacks that did not obscure the view, so did not raise the ire of neighbours; or the ability to selectively turn sections of a structure’s wall transparent to view the layout inside.

Understanding how humans work is also progressing. There are simple techniques based on the duration, time of application and colour of light applied to allow people to stay alert on night shifts or adapt to different time zones. Game theory is being used to develop novel ways of envisioning and solving problems, making obscure solutions obvious. Methods to restore hearing to damaged ears are being developed.

Keep in mind that all of the developments discussed above are based on science that is decades or even centuries old. Many of us try to keep abreast of technical or scientific developments, but, we focus on our own area of expertise. However, many developments in other areas will have profound impacts on how we work tomorrow. After all, who would have thought that heavy machine operators would be using virtual reality to learn a new machine or that high speed data connections would be used to allow chemical plants to run unattended? The future is stranger than any of us can guess.

If you have anything to add or would like to suggest another topic, please contact the author. Dan Davies is a freelance writer. He can be reached at dan.davies@shaw.ca