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FutureBITS: Sweet Batteries, Faster P2P, Nanofiber Displays

Predicting the future is a tricky thing, but as the late Macintosh writer Cary Lu once noted, all the technology we’ll see in products in the next five years is being worked on in research labs today. With Cary’s remark in mind, I’m going to keep an eye out for news of research projects that could affect our technological world. No promises here – if I could identify those projects that will survive to produce a paradigm-shifting product, I’d be a venture capitalist, not a writer. But it’s always fun to imagine what products could be like if only they used…

Sugar-Based Batteries — Bothered by batteries? Led by electrochemist Shelley Minteer, researchers at Saint Louis University have demonstrated a fuel cell battery that relies on enzymes that convert sugar to energy, leaving behind water as the main byproduct. Being the source of energy for most living organisms, sugar is cheap and widely available, and although the best source tested so far was normal table sugar (sucrose) dissolved in water, glucose, flat soda, sweetened drink mixes, and even tree sap have all been used successfully. Others have developed similar sugar-based fuel cells, but Minteer claims hers is the most powerful and longest lasting so far, and
since power and longevity are the key weaknesses of alternative power sources, the question will be if both can be improved to the point where the sugar-based fuel cell can power a cell phone, iPod, laptop, or other portable electronic device. Just think, you could mix up a sugar solution, give half to your iPod, and put the other half in a hummingbird feeder.

Faster P2P Downloading — Peer-to-peer file sharing is for more than just copyright infringement – the technology is interesting for how it distributes massive bandwidth loads widely among a large population of users. Bandwidth may be cheap, but it’s not free, and sharing the load helps all users in the system. According to a news release from Carnegie Mellon University, David G. Andersen of Carnegie Mellon and Michael Kaminsky of Intel Research Pittsburgh have developed a technique called “handprinting” that enables P2P clients to locate similar, but not identical, chunks of data, and they’ve used it in a new system called Similarity-Enhanced Transfer (SET) that significantly outperforms the popular BitTorrent P2P approach. Technology such as this could significantly ease Apple’s bandwidth bills for distributing massive software updates, such as the 300+ MB 10.4.9 combo updater, or HD-quality video from the iTunes Store. I could even imagine an approach where contributing your bandwidth to help others download purchased content from the iTunes Store would give you credits that you could apply toward future purchases.

Flexible Nanofiber Displays — One of the limitations of modern electronics is having a rigid, often highly breakable, display. Much research is going into various ways to create flexible displays, but the latest promising research comes from an interdisciplinary group at Cornell University in the form of tiny – really tiny – “nanolamps,” or light-emitting nanofibers. The 200 nanometer-wide fibers are actually smaller than the wavelength of the light they emit, enabling extremely localized light sources. Hurdles abound: getting the nanofibers to emit sufficiently bright light in the necessary colors, being able to control
the light emitting properties of either individual nanofibers or sufficiently small clumps to create addressable on-screen pixels, and ensuring that the nanofibers offer sufficient durability and longevity. Fabrication is always a concern as well, although the nanofibers were created relatively simply using a technique called electrospinning. I suspect Cornell’s research is years from being used in a commercial product, but we can still dream of having large screens attached to the walls like tapestries, or small displays woven into clothing.

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