Peering into the tea leaves today, I reflect on how it’s often the littlest things that change our lives, gradually, imperceptibly, yet with consequences that accumulate, so we’re unaware of how our lives have been revolutionised.

Many things we’re aware of. But just look at TV shows from the 80’s, not so very long ago. Then, the spectacle of someone walking along the street, deep in conversation with someone invisible, would have been a sign of mental illness. Now we just assume they’re using a hands-free cell phone. The word ‘e-mail’ meant nothing, and even ten years ago, the phrase ‘Google it’ was unknown.

Sometimes, it’s the littlest things — and this column takes that literally.

In the tea leaves, I see some of the future products made possible by applied nanotechnology. I’ve already mentioned in passing in previous columns how nanotechnology will have, or has without us knowing it, given us defences against pathogenic organisms, and cloth that repels dirt. It’s already being used to make car paint that heals scratches, batteries of astonishing capacities undreamt of even five years ago.

Recently, a way has been found to make and align individual molecules that are parabolic reflectors of light. Incoming light from all directions is reflected so that it’s re-emitted in a single direction. Within  the next 30 years, the uses of this technique will change our lives considerably. The most spectacular (but the least useful) is a ‘cloaking device‘, where incoming light is reflected away so that it can’t be seen. But a plain black cloth, by absorbing the light and re-emitting it in an invisible, infra-red spectrum, has a similar effect in practice and is simpler to make. So, while it may be useful for stealth aircraft, the practical applications of such a form of invisibility are limited.

Road signs that are apparently self-illuminating are a more practical use. By taking in background light from all directions and emitting it in the direction of oncoming drivers,  warning can be given at measured distances. “You have 300 metres to the exit… You have 200 metres to the next exit…” and all on the same sign, with different messages readable at different angles, and thus distances. Useful without external illumination on all but completely overcast, moonless nights, thereby reducing the energy needed to run them.

Solar cells will become far more efficient. Instead of 80 per cent of the light passing through,  perhaps 50 per cent will be wasted, with the rest concentrated on the relatively small  section that converts photons to electricity.  In 30 years,  it will be quite usual to have  material  on house roofs that  concentrate incident light, and  reflect  it to nearby towers fitted with solar generation equipment — probably the same communications towers that provide cellular coverage. Even cell phones will have such molecules, tuned this time to microwave frequencies, concentrating signals from all directions into a smaller, more capable antenna.

It’s the littlest things that make such a big difference. Things the size of individual molecules. Reflect on that thought…


Zoe Brain is a real, live rocket scientist! She peers into the tea leaves, giving us a glimpse of our tech future, every second Wednesday in this space…

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