Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour

To get to grips with nanotechnology, you need to start with this!

I always count myself lucky that I have never had a standard job. From my first job with VG Ionex testing and tweaking a wide variety of ion guns (but try getting one through an airport without saying ‘gun!’) to my current bipolar technology/fashion enterprises I’ve rarely done the same thing two days in a row. So far this week I’ve been sorting through fashion photographs as a result of a recent fashion shoot, had an email conversation with a scientist/entrepreneur so well known and respected that even I felt humbled, and spent a morning discussing issues facing aviation and mass tourism with a senior figure from a FTSE 100 quoted travel firm.

What has this got to do with nanotechnology and other emerging technologies? Quite a lot as it turns out.

A key part of what we have done at Cientifica over the past ten years has been to make accurate predictions bout the direction technology will take, and between myself and ‘The Nanoclast‘ we’ve done a pretty good job or predicting the future while avoiding the worst of the pitfalls.One of the reasons for this is that we haven’t limited ourselves to technology, but spend a huge amount of time getting to grips with the issues facing a wide range of industries, as well as global macroeconomic trends, all of which help us make better decisions on what technologies our clients should back, or steer well clear of.

A typical example of how technology predictions can be totally wrong is in the aerospace industry. For almost ten years a variety of pundits have been claiming that the use of nanotube based composites can make aircraft lighter and more fuel efficient, but it just hasn’t happened. The reason is (at least) twofold, driven by two different factors, the supply chain and regulation.

A problem faced by a a number of emerging technologies is the lack of supply chain maturity. For a material to be considered usable most industries a prerequisite would be to have three or four financially stable producers with decent quality control in place so that the same material is guaranteed every time, whether a few grammes or tonnes. A cluster of start ups and students working part time won’t impress Airbus Industrie or Boeing.

Qualification of materials to comply with regulation is something I spent years on at the European Space Agency. The problem is that you can’t just slap any old material into a satellite or airframe and hope it works – the consequences of failure are far too high to consider risking. So all new materials have to go through extensive testing before they can be flown, and this takes time and money. Boeings switch to composites for the 787 is already years behind schedule, and compared with the kind of materials becoming available now the 787 construction is not particularly advanced. The best data recorder for satellites was magnetic tape well into the 90’s for the same reason, a stray proton flipping a call in a solid state memory could wipe out an entire mission, but even tape jams could be fixed with a bit of jiggling about.

So, if you want to really understand nanotechnology, and do something useful with it, you have to spend as much time hanging around coffee houses and hotel bars as you do in the lab, and get through the Economist, Spectator and visit a gallery or museum every week just to put it all in context.

Variety may be the spice of life, but its just as important to nanotechnology.

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