The American public anticipates that the coming half-century will be a period of profound scientific change, as inventions that were once confined to the realm of science fiction come into common usage. This is among the main findings of a new national survey by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine, which asked Americans about a wide range of potential scientific developments—from near-term advances like robotics and bioengineering, to more “futuristic” possibilities like teleportation or space colonization. In addition to asking them for their predictions about the long-term future of scientific advancement, we also asked them to share their own feelings and attitudes toward some new developments that might become common features of American life in the relatively near future.
Energy Storing Bricks
Scientists have found a way to store energy in the red bricks that are used to build houses. Researchers led by Washington University in St Louis, in Missouri, US, have developed a method that can turn the cheap and widely available building material into “smart bricks” that can store energy like a battery. Although the research is still in the proof-of-concept stage, the scientists claim that walls made of these bricks “could store a substantial amount of energy” and can “be recharged hundreds of thousands of times within an hour”.
The researchers developed a method to convert red bricks into a type of energy storage device called a supercapacitor. This involved putting a conducting coating, known as Pedot, onto brick samples, which then seeped through the fired bricks’ porous structure, converting them into “energy storing electrodes”. Iron oxide, which is the red pigment in the bricks, helped with the process, the researchers said.
Robotic Guide Dogs
A student at Loughborough University has designed a “robotic guide dog” that will help support visually impaired people who are unable to house a real animal. The product, designed by Anthony Camu, replicates the functions of a guide dog as well as programming quick and safe routes to destinations using real-time data. Theia, named after the titan goddess of sight, is a portable and concealable handheld device that guides users through outdoor environments and large indoor spaces with very little input.
Using a special control moment gyroscope (CMG), Theia moves users’ hands and physically “leads” them – much like holding the brace of a guide dog. The device is designed to process real-time online data, such as traffic density (pedestrians and cars) and weather, to guide users accurately and safely to their destinations. It will have a fail-safe procedure for high-risk scenarios, such as crossing busy roads – pushing the user back into a “manual mode”, similar to using a cane.
Sweat Powered Smartwatches
Engineers at the University of Glasgow have developed a new type of flexible supercapacitor, which stores energy, replacing the electrolytes found in conventional batteries with sweat. It can be fully charged with as little as 20 microliters of fluid and is robust enough to survive 4,000 cycles of the types of flexes and bends it might encounter in use. The device works by coating polyester cellulose cloth in a thin layer of a polymer, which acts as the supercapacitor’s electrode. As the cloth absorbs its wearer’s sweat, the positive and negative ions in the sweat interact with the polymer’s surface, creating an electrochemical reaction which generates energy.
Conventional batteries are cheaper and more plentiful than ever before but they are often built using unsustainable materials which are harmful to the environment,” says Professor Ravinder Dahiya, head of the Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (Best) group, based at the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering. “That makes them challenging to dispose of safely and potentially harmful in wearable devices, where a broken battery could spill toxic fluids on to skin “What we’ve been able to do for the first time is show that human sweat provides a real opportunity to do away with those toxic materials entirely, with excellent charging and discharging performance.
Self-Healing ‘Living Concrete’
Scientists have developed what they call living concrete by using sand, gel and bacteria. Researchers said this building material has structural load-bearing function, is capable of self-healing and is more environmentally friendly than concrete – which is the second most-consumed material on Earth after water. The team from the University of Colorado Boulder believe their work paves the way for future building structures that could “heal their own cracks, suck up dangerous toxins from the air or even glow on command”.
Tiny hybrid robots made using stem cells from frog embryos could one day be used to swim around human bodies to specific areas requiring medicine, or to gather microplastic in the oceans. “These are novel living machines,” said Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, who co-developed the millimetre-wide bots, known as xenobots. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artefact: a living, programmable organism.