Daddy, is this water safe to drink?

Just dip your pendant in it sweetheart, the way you were shown at Kindy. There you go… No, we have to boil it first.

How does my pendant work, Daddy?

Er.. something to do with diamonds honey… I think… Ask your mother. She’s the expert.


Peering into the Tea Leaves this week, I see all sorts of changes coming to our lives, soon. Many are similar to the infinitesimal changes that have accreted in technology over the last 20 years or so. Little things — so little that we don’t notice — yet, in aggregate, they make a significant impact on our daily lives.

This post is about some of the recent advances in materials science and the way they’ll affect  us.


First, there’s the Fifth Element on the periodic table: Boron. It’s been predicted, for a while, that this unusual material — an element that is schizophrenic about deciding whether it’s a metal or not — should be able to be formed into an ionic crystal. Something not as hard as diamond — well, not quite — but, unlike diamond, it won’t burn and evaporate into CO2 when heated in air. Gamma Boron  is stable up to about 100,000 atmospheres and, so, would be ideal  for precision machinery and bearings that operate inside turbines and other engines. As a coating, it may all but eliminate wear. Ceramic block internal combustion engines with Gamma Boron bearings may become sealed units — good for a century of use before they start losing efficiency.

It was in 1951 that the late, great Alec Guiness (Okay, Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars) appeared in the British comedy The Man in the White Suit. This was about an eccentric inventor who developed a cloth that never wore out and never needed cleaning. At first, the clothing manufacturers were all for it, till they realised the implication: No repeat sales — ever.

We’re not quite at that stage. Not yet. But firms are starting to use nanotechnology to put coatings on work clothes that repel virtually everything. Using this technology, the company Nano-Tex has already produced 100 million garments that basically don’t need cleaning. Last year, at the Conference of Supply Chain Professionals, a demonstration was given showing a can of coke being spilled over a business shirt and tie — something that usually happens just before important demonstrations to customers, not during them. The clothing remained dry.

It’s only a little thing, never having to worry about coffee or Jolt spills on your clothing any more. But it affects our lives more than you’d think. Especially if the clothing repels less-benign substances, pollution or even chemical weapons. And, of course, had members of for U.S. President Clinton’s staff worn clothing using this technology, history could have turned out quite differently.

That brings me to the little girl dipping her Magic Pendant(TM) into the water supply at a camp site.

“Smooth, electrically conducting diamond film has many potential advantages for biosensors. By using MEMS (micro electrical mechanical systems) technology, we can miniaturize the devices making it economically feasible for people to carry a sensor in their wallet or as a piece of jewelry which would allow them, for example, to determine if water is safe to drink. In the case of military personnel or first responders, detectors could be integrated into uniforms or personal protective equipment…”

That’s from Advanced Diamond Technology’s Chief Technical Officer. They and other developers are working with the U.S. Defence Threat Reduction Agency on an array of similar technologies.

As Arthur Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Due to many micro-advances in materials science, our lives will become just a little more magical.

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