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Nobel Prizes show that the biggest innovations are happening at molecular level

Oct 13, 2016

The Next Idea

I spend a lot of time looking for the future. I never really find it. Humans are too unpredictable. Innovations are like teenagers. They’re never really sure what they want be when they grow up, if they grow up at all. You can only hope they find their rightful place in the world somewhere along the way.

On the rare occasion that I get a real glimpse of what will happen next, it’s because I took the time to get beyond the “cool factor” of innovation to see the emerging science that makes it possible.

There are three basic phases of innovation development.

Let’s work backwards, starting at the end.

The third phase is the easiest to see because it’s where a basic technology is transformed into something you might actually use – a new gadget, a medicine or a digital app. This phase ends with the manufacturing, marketing and commercialization of the innovation. Innovations often fail in this phase because the timing might not be right or it might not come in the right color to be fashionable. 

If you want to see the future, take a good look at the new materials being created today. Your stylish new smart phone is brought to you via breakthroughs in composites, polymers and semiconductors. Grandpa’s new hip is made possible by new designer metals and biomaterials.

It’s a little harder to get a line of sight to the second phase, where a scientific discovery is transformed into a basic technology, like a new molecule or a faster processor. While the technology might be viable, it might not find a useful application, might be too unstable to be manufactured, or might be too expensive be practical. This is where venture capitalists often lose their way, and their money.

The first phase is by far the hardest to see because this is where the secrets of nature are unlocked in research labs and in the field work of top universities, institutes and companies. It’s not just that this phase is often secretive. It’s that the knowledge needed to create new substances is difficult to understand and even harder to acquire. These scientists are the alchemists of our age, trying to turn lead into gold. This is the phase of material science.

If you want to see the future, take a good look at the new materials being created today. Your stylish new smart phone is brought to you via breakthroughs in composites, polymers and semiconductors. Grandpa’s new hip is made possible by new designer metals and biomaterials. What makes products innovative isn’t just the design – it’s the exotic and strange properties of these new materials that make them possible.

So what are some big developments in material science? Let’s look at a few.

Recyclable thermoset plastics

Try saying that three times. They can be melted down and reshaped, or cured to resist intense heat and pressure. They can be used in everything from children’s toys to building construction that is affordable, comfortable and waste-reducing.

Graphene

It’s a carbon-based material 100 times stronger than steel. It can be made to be nearly transparent and conducts electricity and heat efficiently. Graphene can be used to create durable displays and electronic circuits, as well as highly powerful solar cells with a much smaller footprint than those available today.

Composite membranes

They’re multi-layered materials used in water filtration. These membranes work like a tiny sieve blocking the sodium and chlorine molecules while allowing the smaller water molecules to pass through. This advancement could open the door to inexpensive saltwater desalinization that could provide an endless supply of clean water to coastal communities.

The list goes on and on. Today’s breakthrough in material science becomes tomorrow’s must-have innovation. So if you really want to see the future, you might want to talk to a materials scientist. They are probably more predictable than the average teenager and they may actually understand the real substance of innovation.

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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