Scientific American December 2020 pp34-45|Special Report| “10” “TOP TEN EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES OF 2020” “Experts highlight advances with the potential to revolutionize industry, health care and society”
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1. Medicine “Microneedles for Painless Injections and Tests “ “Fewer trips to medical labs make care more accessible” by Elizabeth O’Day. Super short and wide microneedles penetrate below dead skin into the epidermis to deliver drugs, be sensors or to sample interstitial fluid or even blood without going deeper in the enervated skin layer called the dermis. Drug delivery in this way will be more efficient than transdermal patches. They will be limited if larger doses or specimens are needed. Companies in this arena are Micron Biomedical and Vaxxas.
2. Chemical Engineering “Sun-Powered Chemistry”. “Visible light can drive process that converts carbon dioxide into common materials” by Javier Garcia Martinez. Converting carbon dioxide into chemicals can reduce emissions by “using the unwanted gas as a raw material and sunlight” rather than fossil fuels to energize the process. This has been achieved by advances in sunlight-activate catalysts that are “semiconductors, which require high-energy ultraviolet light to generate electrons” needed to transform carbon dioxide.
3. Health Care “Virtual Patients” “ Replacing Humans with simulations could make clinical trials faster and safer”. By Daniel E. Hurtado and Sophia M. Velastegui. This is leveraging what is known as “in silico medicine”-“the testing of drugs and treatments on virtual organs or body systems” to evaluate how a human might respond in the proof-of-concept process. Such processes are safe, inexpensive and rapid compared to alternatives. One example the FDA is “using computer simulations…for evaluating new mammography systems.” Another example is by HeartFlow Analysis, “a [FDA Approved] cloud-based service [that] enables clinicians to identify coronary artery disease based on CT images of a patient’s heart.” Other firms noted are Dassault Systemes, Integrative Biomedical Research and Microsoft’s Healthcare NExT.
4. Computing “Spatial Computing” “The next big thing beyond virtual and augmented reality” by Corinna E. Lathan and Geoffrey Ling. This is essentially the marriage of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality to map out for example your bedroom, following your movements and even having equipment anticipate or react to your needs. “If she begins to fall when getting into bed, her furniture shifts to protect her, and an alert goes to her son and the local monitoring station.”
5. Medicine “Digital Medicine” “Apps that diagnoses and even treat what ails us”. By P. Murali Doraiswamy. Your next prescription from your personal physician might be an APP that may track various medical signs and symptoms like “users’ voices, locations, facial expressions, exercise, sleep and texting activity; then apply AI to flag the possible onset or exacerbation of a condition.” Some APPs have been FDA approved including; reSET by Pear Therapeutics for substance use disorder, Somryst for insomnia and EndeavorRX a video game for kids with ADH.
6. Transportation “Electric Aviation” Enabling air travel to decarbonize” by Katherine Hamilton and Tommy Ma. Replacing fossil-fuel burning aircraft engines with electric power will dramatically reduce carbon-footprint, be quieter and lower maintenance costs. Early efforts are focused on small planes and shorter excursions the biggest challenge is reaching a reasonable power-to-weight ratio for batteries. Despite such a challenge and potential regulatory changes there is much enthusiasm with 170 electric airplane projects in progress. “Airbus says it plans to have 100-passenger versions ready to fly by 2030. Other companies noted are Ampiare, MagniX, Eviation and Cape Air.
7. Infrastructure “Lower-Carbon Cement” “Construction material that combats climate change” by Mariette DiChristina. With increasing urbanization cement and concrete use will grow by 20% to 5 billion tons by 2050. Unbeknownst to many the heat needed to produce cement accounts for 8% of manmade carbon ranking cement alone, if an entity, as behind only China and America in carbon-footprint. Lower carbon approaches “are being pursued” using alternate chemicals, Solidia in NJ, or storing generated carbon dioxide that’s generated, CarbonCure in Novia Scotia, using steel slag rather than cement, CarbiCrete in Montreal, and And Noreem in Norway is making zero-emission cement.
8. Computing “Quantum Sensing” “High-precision metrology based on the peculiarities of the subatomic realm” by Carlo Ratti. “Quantum computers get all the hype, but quantum sensors could be equally transformative, enabling autonomous vehicles that can ‘see around corner’, underwater navigation systems, early-warning systems for volcanic activity and earthquakes, and portable scanners than monitors a person’s brain activity during daily life.” How do Quantum Sensors work? They “reach extreme levels of precision by exploiting the quantum nature of matter.” The nuclear clock is an example. It functions “based on the fact that electrons in cesium 133 atoms complete a specific transition 9,192,631,770 times a second.” Other applications “use atomic transitions to detect miniscule changes in motion and tiny differences in gravitational, electric and magnetic fields.” So far, these systems are too big, too complex, too sensitive to external conditions and too expensive so the focus is on simplifying and miniaturizing yet early versions may reach the market in a few years focused on “medical and defense applications.”
9. Energy “Green Hydrogen” “Zero-carbon energy to supplement wind and solar” by Jeff Carbeck. Currently using hydrogen as fuel source is inefficient actually using more energy to create than it saves. This is called gray hydrogen because generating hydrogen requires “fossil fuels [that] are exposed to steam” and waste carbon dioxide is generated and lost. If the carbon dioxide by product is captured during the process then the generated hydrogen is named blue hydrogen. “Green hydrogen is different. It is produced through electrolysis…water [is split] into hydrogen and oxygen” only. This requires huge amounts of energy but with renewable sources there’s no carbon footprint and excess wind and solar can be converted to storable hydrogen rather than needing batteries. Hydrogen is a great energy source because when consumed water is the only byproduct. All this aligns with a green future and potentially new markets. Australia can tap excess wind energy and Chile can tap excess solar as examples. “Goldman Sachs predicted that green hydrogen will become a $12-trillon market by 2050.” China wants 1M hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by 2030. Projects are “underway in South Korea, Malaysia, Norway and America.
10. Synthetic Biology “Whole-Genome Synthesis” “Next-level cell engineering” By Andrew Hessel and San Yup Lee. Synthetic biology strives to make designer genomes that are programmed to achieve biological and medical work. “Improvements in synthesis technology and software are making it possible to print ever larger swaths of genetic material and to alter genomes more extensively.” Small viruses, with about 7,500 nucleotides, were “produced…starting in 2002.” In 2019 an Escherichia coli genome with millions of nucleotides has been synthesized and recently an early version of the much more complicated “brewer’s yeast genome.” The quest continues to make even more complicated genomes but innovation in design software and improved synthesis that is faster and less expensive is needed. These increasing capabilities bring into question the potential for misuse and call for international cooperation to develop the appropriate “safety net.”