The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has just published its annual list of the top ten emerging technology trends. Based on expert assessment from council members and others, the list provides insight into technologies that have the potential to have a significant economic and social impact in the near to mid term. It also provides a heads-up as to where the science of risk is going to be increasingly important if safe, sustainable and successful products using the technologies are going to emerge. (The University of Michigan has published a list of experts available to discuss the technology innovation trends and their implications)
This year’s list includes:
OnLine Electric Vehicles (OLEV)
Already widely used to exchange digital information, wireless technology can now also deliver electric power to moving vehicles. In next-generation electric cars, pick-up coil sets under the vehicle floor receive power remotely via an electromagnetic field broadcast from cables installed under the road surface. The current also charges an onboard battery used to power the vehicle when it is out of range. As electricity is supplied externally, these vehicles require only a fifth the battery capacity of a standard electric car, and can achieve transmission efficiencies of over 80 percent. Online electric vehicles are currently undergoing road tests in Seoul, South Korea.
3-D printing and remote manufacturing
Three-dimensional printing allows the creation of solid structures from a digital computer file, potentially revolutionising the economics of manufacturing if objects can be printed remotely in the home or office rather than requiring time and energy for transportation. The process involves layers of material being deposited on top of each other in order to create free-standing structures from the bottom up. Blueprints from computer-aided design are sliced into cross-section for print templates, allowing virtually-created objects to be used as models for ‘hard copies’ made from plastics, metal alloys or other materials.
One of the defining characteristics of living organisms is the inherent ability to repair physical damage done to them. A growing trend in biomimicry is the creation of non-living structural materials that also have the capacity to heal themselves when cut, torn or cracked. Self-healing materials which can repair damage without external human intervention could give manufactured goods longer lifetimes and reduce the demand for raw materials, as well as improving the inherent safety of structural materials used in construction or to form the bodies of aircraft.
Energy-efficient water purification
Water scarcity is a worsening ecological problem in many parts of the world due to competing demands from agriculture, cities and other human uses. Where freshwater systems are over-used or exhausted, desalination from the sea offers near-unlimited water but at the expense of considerable use of energy – mostly from fossil fuels – to drive evaporation or reverse osmosis systems. Emerging technologies offer the potential for significantly higher energy efficiency in desalination or purification of wastewater, potentially reducing energy consumption by 50 percent or more. Techniques such as forward osmosis can additionally improve efficiency by utilising low-grade heat from thermal power production or renewable heat produced by solar-thermal geothermal installations.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) conversion and use
Long-promised technologies for the capture and underground sequestration of carbon dioxide have yet to be proven commercially viable, even at the scale of a single large power station. New technologies that convert the unwanted CO2 into saleable goods can potentially address both the economic and energetic shortcomings of conventional CCS strategies. One of the most promising approaches uses biologically-engineered photosynthetic bacteria to turn waste CO2 into liquid fuels or chemicals, in low-cost, modular solar converter systems. Whilst only operational today at the acre scale, individual systems are expected to reach hundreds of acres within as little as two years. Being 10 to 100 times as productive per unit of land area, these systems address one of the main environmental constraints on biofuels from agricultural or algal feedstock, and could supply lower carbon fuels for automobiles, aviation or other large-scale liquid fuel users.
Enhanced nutrition to drive health at the molecular level
Even in developed countries millions of people suffer from malnutrition due to nutrient deficiencies in their diets. Efforts to improve the situation by changing diets have met with limited success. Now modern genomic techniques have been applied to determine at the gene sequence level the vast number of naturally-consumed proteins which are important in the human diet. The proteins identified may have advantages over standard protein supplements in that they can supply a greater percentage of essential amino acids, and have improved solubility, taste, texture and nutritional characteristics. The large-scale production of pure human dietary proteins based on the application of biotechnology to molecular nutrition can deliver health benefits such as in muscle development, managing diabetes or reducing obesity.
The increasingly widespread use of sensors that allow often passive responses to external stimulae will continue to change the way we respond to the environment, particularly in the area of health. Examples include sensors that continually monitor bodily function – such as heart rate, blood oxygen and blood sugar levels – and if necessary trigger a medical response such as insulin provision. Advances rely on wireless communication between devices, low power sensing technologies and, sometimes, active energy harvesting. Other examples include vehicle-to-vehicle sensing for improved safety on the road.
Precise drug delivery through nanoscale engineering
Pharmaceuticals which can be precisely delivered at the molecular level within or around the cell offer unprecedented opportunities for more effectively treatments while reducing unwanted side effects. Targeted nanoparticles that adhere to diseased tissue allow for the micro-scale delivery of potent therapeutic compounds while minimizing their impact on healthy tissue, and are now advancing in medical trials. After almost a decade of research, these new approaches are now finally showing signs of clinical utility, through increasing the local concentration and exposure time of the required drug and thereby increasing its effectiveness. As well as improving the effects of current drugs, these advances in nanomedicine promise to rescue other drugs, which would otherwise be rejected due to their dose-limiting toxicity.
Organic electronics and photovoltaics
Organic electronics – a type of printed electronics – is the use of organic materials such as polymers to create electronic circuits and devices. In contrast to traditional (silicon based) semiconductors that are fabricated with expensive photolithographic techniques, organic electronics can be printed using low-cost, scalable processes such as ink jet printing- making them extremely cheap compared with traditional electronics devices, both in terms of the cost per device and the capital equipment required to produce them. While organic electronics are currently unlikely to compete with silicon in terms of speed and density, they have the potential to provide a significant edge in terms of cost and versatility. The cost implications of printed mass-produced solar photovoltaic collectors for example could accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
Fourth-generation reactors and nuclear waste recycling
Current once-through nuclear power reactors only utilise 1% of the potential energy available in uranium, leaving the rest radioactively contaminated as nuclear ‘waste’. Whilst the technical challenge of geological disposal is manageable, the political challenge of nuclear waste seriously limits the appeal of this zero-carbon and highly scaleable energy technology. Spent-fuel recycling and breeding uranium-238 into new fissile material – known as ‘Nuclear 2.0’ – would extend already-mined uranium resources for centuries while dramatically reducing the volume and long-term toxicity of wastes, whose radioactivity will drop below the level of the original uranium ore on a timescale of centuries rather millennia. This makes geological disposal much less of a challenge (and arguably even unnecessary) and nuclear waste a minor environmental issue compared to hazardous wastes produced by other industries. Fourth-generation technologies, including liquid metal-cooled fast reactors, are now being deployed in several countries and are offered by established nuclear engineering companies.
Top 10 Emerging Technology Trends for 2013 infographic
World Economic Forum: The Top 10 Emerging Technology Trends for 2013
Washington Post: Top 10 Emerging Technologies for 2013
[Updated 2/15/13 to include the UM list of experts link]