Lab to high street in record time
Will the quasicrystal tie catch on? Shock image of the day is Israel's PM Netanyahu wearing one (no, this isn't Netanyau but Dan Schechtman, the quasicrystal Nobel Laureate. Pity graphene is transparent and is therefore not tie-friendly, otherwise George Osborne could put a matching tie on his £50 million nanotech punt.
No Jobs Here
It’s an enduring mystery why Britain, with a fabulous roll-call of scientific Nobel Prize winners, can’t create world-class hi-tech industries. A glance at Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice might give us a clue. Both extol the tough barrow-boy, rags to riches approach. This is business as philistine ruthlessness. The result is that university technologists and businessmen do not speak the same language. We have no Steve Jobs, or anyone remotely like him. Instead we have Lord Sugar, who boasted in a recent interview that he never read a book or listened to music. Like Steve Jobs he used to make computers. They were calledIt was called Amstrad and flickered briefly.
Not Yet the Third World
The impression given by the media is that the UK is slipping away from being a First World country: few houses are being built, the infrastructure creaks; the dwindling manufacturing base dwindles further.
In fact, some grands projets, started long before the recession, are coming to fruition and they offer new hope. The Olympic site is not the only major development in North London. The railway lands north of St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, which for decades housed rotting canal-side warehouses, railway sheds and gas-holders, are taking shape as a 21st century campus of great vision and potential.
It began with the British Library – a surprise success for ‘70s planning and government funding: since 1998 one of London’s greatest resources for serious study and also a gorgeous place to hang out.
Then came St Pancras International, the Eurostar terminal and also base for the Javelin high speed trains that can reach the Olympics site in 6 minutes. Just open is the London University of the Arts, a vast complex incorporating Central St Martin’s School of Art, the London College of Fashion and other art colleges. Work has now started on the Francis Crick Institute, a major biomedical research facility. Not part of the site but just across York Way are King’s Place, home of the Guardian newspaper and Macmillan publishers, home of the leading science journal Nature. The revamp of Kings’ Cross station is nearing completion, with its soaring new concourse roof and promised piazza where the old drab concourse used to be.
Running through the site is the Regents Canal, currently being landscaped, and the campus has its natural oasis in Camley Street Natural Park. What was once a blot on the capital city is becoming a learning park of the highest quality. What is especially interesting about this is that no such broad area development has happened in Britain, barring shopping malls, for a very long time. Signature buildings have been dropped into streetscapes to which they contribute nothing. But at King’s Cross the institutes together will add up to more than the sum of their parts. Individually, some of the architecture, at least, is memorable.
Not bad for a place once notorious for dereliction, vagrants and prostitution.
Air and Water
Earth, air, fire and water were the 4 Greek elements. We know better now: there are 92 natural chemical elements and a few more that can be made in nuclear reactors; there are, according to Chemical Abstracts 55 million known chemical compounds and this total grows at a frightening rate.
But perhaps we should think more in terms of two of those Greek “elements”: air and water. Many vital materials for hi-tech industry are in short supply but air and water are massively abundant. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make mouldable solid materials from these primal (but not elemental) substances?
An obvious pipedream but thanks to nanotechnology it is coming true. It has been known for along time that the paradoxical way to make strong material is to leave much of the solid stuff out. The honeycomb core of composite panels is strong and exceptionally light. What this idea tends towards is the solid foam and this was realised a long time ago in the form of aerogels.
The aerogel was invented as long ago as 1929. It is a foam from which the water has been withdrawn, leaving the structure intact and replacing the water with air. The most common material is silica, which is also used by nature in the intricate Buckminster Fuller-like structures of the tiny marine radiolarians. Aerogels have been much developed since their invention but they are still fabulously expensive, Their main applications have been in space technology.
What is special about them? Aerogels are the lowest density materials known. They are so wispy that the name “solid smoke” has been coined for them. They are almost transparent but not quite, having an eerie bluish cast They are tough in compression but above all they are the most efficient insulators on earth. A crayon placed on aerogel cannot be melted by a Bunsen burner placed underneath. If aerogels could be made more cheaply they would revolutionise insulation technology, especially in the home.
Various figures are quoted for the proportion of air in an aerogel, but it is reliably over 90%; the highest figure I’ve seen is 99.8%.
Can the same be done with water? Yes: a Japanese team has developed mouldable plastics consisting of 98% water. The secret of both the air and water substances is dendritic molecules. These are large many branched molecules in which the endless ramifications provide a strong network which encloses the air or water. The idea seems entirely counter-intuitive, like most nanotechnology, but both aerogels and aqua plastic pass the Dr Johnson test of reality: they are solid – you can stub your toe on them. And so much more.
With thanks to Dan O’Dwyer for reminding me about the properties of aerogels.
Q. Wang, et al. High–Water–Content Mouldable Hydrogels by Mixing Clay and Dendritic Molecular Binder, Nature 2010, 463, 339.
I'm a writer whose interests include the biological revolution happening now, the relationship between art and science, jazz, and the state of the planet