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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Waves of Innovation, Waves of Materials

I am continually reminded in my readings of just how important new materials are to innovation, especially the major waves of innovation.  Unlocking the possibilities in a new material releases endless opportunities for inventors and entrepreneurs to exploit.  We even note a new material era almost like chapter-headings in the history of technology:  the Iron and Steel Age, the Petroleum Age, the Polymer Age, the Age of Silicon. Material revolutions underlie a multitude of other major innovations from automobiles to plastics to microchips.

The common thread in all these earlier ages was that the raw materials to enable these waves of material innovation were abundant.  The very success of the early ventures into a new material - oil drilling, for example - led to ever-increasing investment to find more sources of untapped oil reserves.  For the last 150 years or so, it seemed like we could never run out.

But Earth is a finite place and the cost of retrieving raw materials has to rise as the difficulty in getting at them increases.  Deep-water oil drilling is one very glaring example in the news lately.  The supplies of rare metals used in microchip doping lies in only a few places on the planet and most of them could become inaccessible if the political winds change in the future.

I recently came across a very interesting interactive graphic  entitled "How Much is Left?" on Scientific American's web site that was designed to make you think about the limits of our planet's resources.  The interactive links are well worth exploring.

If new materials drive innovation, what can we expect if the raw materials are themselves limited?  It seems a no-brainer that we will focus more and more on finding ways to economically extract materials from renewable resources.  Some of this will driven by a desire for cleaner, greener technologies.  But most of  the impetus will be that it is the only way to sustain production of some materials.  The commercial gates will open when rising costs from shrinking supplies of the old materials exceed the diminishing costs of sustainable materials.  It will not be viable unless it is driven by economics rather than ideology.

So the next wave of material innovation may be less about how we exploit some new raw material and more about how we replace ever-more-scarce natural materials.  The difference this time is that the new raw materials will be sustainable indefinitely.  We better hope that is true because the alternative isn't pretty to think about.

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