Chapter 13: Prologue to the Future What's Next?: Predictions and Possibilities – NanoInnovation: What Every Manager Needs to Know

Prologue to the Future What's Next?: Predictions and Possibilities

It's a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way.

– Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop, 1919

Most books start with a prologue. This book ends with a prologue, because this is where the future begins – a prologue to the future.

As I was interviewing nano-insiders for this book, I asked many of them to offer predictions of radical nanoinnovations that might be possible to achieve in ∼10 years. These informed opinions were combined with my own research and blended with my personal views as a technology futurist. The result is a list of radical nanoinnovations that need to be on your radar screen. If successful, these innovations have the potential to replace existing technologies and applications, transform industries, and create entirely new markets.

While these may be considered predictions, it is more appropriate to consider them as possibilities. With the proper resources, funding, perseverance, and luck, these nanoinnovations can be commercially available in about a decade. Which of these will succeed and which will fail depend on many factors. The important thing is that these emerging technologies and applications hold great promise. Many of these innovations are already finding their way from the research laboratory to the marketplace. This is a dynamic list and it will certainly change in the coming decade and beyond. I'm sure that you can find examples that are specific to your interests, your industry, or company. For now, these examples offer some intriguing glimpses of the future of nanoinnovation.

Aerial Drones and Robots

You may have seen YouTube videos showing quadrotors flying in different formations, in a gymnasium. This system was developed at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2012, while I was serving as managing director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School, we cosponsored the $5000 Y-Prize competition for the best business and technology plan for a robotics innovation. The winning proposal was a plan to use quadrotors with ground-penetrating radar to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to protect combat troops.

The prizewinners were engineering undergraduates Dick Zhang and Kelsey Duncombe-Smith, and doctoral candidate Andy Wu, who have subsequently launched a venture called IdentifIED Technologies Corporation (Figure 13.1). I have been privileged to advise the new venture, which is currently refining their prototype and developing a variety of industrial applications that use quadrotors to aerially inspect areas where humans cannot go. Dick indicated that their quadrotor uses lithium-polymer batteries with a LiCo nanotech substrate.

Figure 13.1 Dick Zhang, CEO and cofounder of Identified Technologies, operates a prototype quadrotor. The computer-controlled multicopter can sense and gather data where it's too dangerous or physically impossible for humans to go.

Multirotor devices (called multicopters) have been featured in games such as Call of Duty, but they also exist in real life and are being developed by real military research teams, as well as entrepreneurs and inventors. You can buy multicopter kits now on the Internet. The popularity of these devices and the implications for privacy and security have raised a variety of issues, including how and where government agencies will allow them to be flown.

Cameras of the Future

Having started my career as a photojournalist, I have keen interest in one of the most intriguing innovations in photography – the ability to change the focus of a picture after you take the photograph. This would eliminate all those out-of-focus pictures we took on our vacation, those blurry family photos, or a photo of a news event that was taken quickly and is out of focus. Imagine being able to adjust the focus to make everything clear after the photo is taken. This sounds like science fiction, but it's really true.

The Lytro Light Field Camera (Figure 13.2) allows you to adjust the depth of field (focus point) of a photograph after the photo is taken, because the camera captures the entire light field in the photo, instead of a two-dimensional focal plane. This allows the photographer to refocus the picture after it's taken using a feature Lytro calls “Perspective Shift.” Not only does this capability eliminate the problem of out-of-focus pictures, but it also allows the photographer to shift the focal area to any point in the picture. The next step for this technology, which may require nanotechnology to shrink the components, will be to integrate light field cameras in smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

Figure 13.2 The Lytro Camera has revolutionized photography by allowing photographers to adjust the focus of a picture after it's taken (photo courtesy of Lytro – Copyright 2014, Lytro).

Cancer-fighting Cosmetic Creams

What if a moisturizing skin cream or lotion could also be a gene therapy product, and what if this cream could turn off the genes that cause skin cancer? A research report in 2012 at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described how Chad Mirkin, Amy Paller, and their colleagues at Northwestern University used nanoparticles to turn off genes that cause skin cancer and other diseases. Their innovation involves an engineered nanoparticle consisting of small strands of RNA packed around a gold core to switch off genes that are linked to skin diseases. Their nanoparticle, which they call a “spherical nucleic acid nanoparticle conjugate,” is wrapped around gold particles that are only 13 nm in diameter.

Their goal was to suppress epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a gene that controls the growth of skin cells. This could provide an entirely new way to treat skin cancer, psoriasis, or other gene-related skin diseases. Some drugs exist today that target genes associated with skin disease, but these are usually administered in a pill or intravenously. The epidermis (outer layer) of human skin is structured to prevent foreign particles from penetrating the skin. Wrapping small interfering RNA (siRNA) around gold particles combined with a commercial moisturizer was able to penetrate the skin barrier. The researchers were able to get the particles to penetrate almost 100% of human skin cells in vitro, and to suppress the EGFR genes in various mice and human skin samples from 52 to 90% – which almost totally cleared the skin within 10 days. The EGFR gene application was developed as a proof of concept. Other applications include the potential to turn off skin genes associated with other diseases, even aging. The technology is being developed for commercial use by AuraSense Therapeutics.

Diagnostic Techwear

Nike, Samsung, Under Armour, and other innovative techwear companies are beginning to market monitoring straps, bracelets, and watches for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. These wearable computers are easily converted to medical applications that will add a new dimension and enable prevention as well as early self-diagnosis of many biometric symptoms. What are required to move to the next wave are nanocircuits, flexible electronics, nanomaterials, and nanosensors that record biometrics.

Electronic Devices Will Have New Form Factors

We've already seen the next generation of nano-enabled form factors, including phones that morph into bracelets (Nokia), bracelets that monitor fitness statistics (Adidas, Nike, and United Armour), smarter than ever smartphones (Samsung and Apple), and paper thin tablets (Apple, Asus, and Lenovo). The first flexible large screens were previewed at a private event at the January 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. We've also seen the first wave of long-life battery-powered devices that will eventually last 1 week, and then 1 month, on a single charge. Another feature that will soon be available involves transparent electronics, where the circuits are so thin (nanoscale) that they become invisible, which means they can be printed or sandwiched in paper-thin form factors, such as paper-thin computers or sensors, and functional tattoos or electronic nanoskin.

When I was helping to design the first home computers at Commodore in the early 1980s, I predicted that portable computers would eventually come in configurations that would “roll up, scroll out, bend and fold.” In November 2013, Samsung previewed a prototype of an integrated phone/tablet device (phablet) that can be folded to the size of a wallet and unfolded to the size of a tablet. The device uses a new plastic substrate and an active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) display that uses nanoparticles. Samsung has announced plans to introduce folding phones and other futuristic devices by 2015.

Fashionable Nanowear

The integration of nanotechnology and textiles is well underway. Some of the newest innovations in this space include clothing that changes color or texture depending on the weather, temperature, or how we move. In the coming decade, fabrics that mimic the scales of a butterfly will allow the costumes of contestants on Dancing with the Stars to change color as they dance – maybe red for the jerky moves of a quick step or blue for a slow tango. A gym suit or sweatpants might change color when we run or exercise, powered by muscle tensing and relaxing as we move. On the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards, a movie actress might wear a silk dress that shimmers or sparkles, or changes dramatically as she moves, thanks to embedded nanoparticles.

Nanofabrics and nanoskins will give a future Lady Gaga some really trend-setting fashion ideas. Perhaps her tunic or dress will be made from flexible electronics that allow the costume to morph into different shapes as well as different colors and patterns. Several years ago, Phillips Lighting demonstrated fabrics with built-in LED lights that play an animated video. Future versions may be powered not by batteries but by piezoelectric energy drawn from the body's own muscle movements or pulsing arteries.

I believe that the day is not too distant when a college student walking on campus will wear a jacket that displays an animated Coca-Cola logo that lights up and keeps moving and changing as she walks to class. When her classmate asks, “Where did you get that cool jacket?” she will respond, “It's free. I got it from Coke, but I had to agree to keep the battery charged so the logo lights up when I wear it.”

Google Glass: A New Dimension in Wearable Computers

Most of the functions that are currently available in smartphones are rapidly migrating to eyeglasses. This new dimension is being pioneered by Google through an awesome innovation called Google Glass – a lightweight frame with a visual display that contains all the functions currently available in a smartphone (Figure 13.3). The frame rests above the eyes and provides a visual display in the upper corner of the wearer's field of vision. It can be used with prescription or sun glasses, or by itself. The user interface responds to tapes and gestures, a touchbar, and voice commands. Google's Mirror API facilitates development of software apps that are called “glassware.”

Figure 13.3 Google Glass devices can be worn with prescription glasses or sunglasses, and can be customized for special applications such as athletics and virtual games that create augmented reality (photos courtesy of Google, Inc.).

Design enhancements that may be integrated in future models include GPS, sound transmitted through bone conduction, facial recognition, and the ability to take photos simply by blinking. The game community led by Oculus Rift is exploring ways to combine reality with animation to create awesome simulations that are being called “augmented reality.”

Google Glass was cocreated by Project Glass lead Babak Parviz; Steve Lee, a project manager and geolocation specialist; and Sebastian Thrun, who developed Udacity and worked on Google's self-driving car project. The first Google prototypes were introduced to early adopter “lottery winners” in 2013. Google is building a growing community of Glass users called Explorers who are helping to develop, test, and comment on this and other innovations. Google has set up Basecamps in several cities where Glass Explorers can explore the features and experiment with new apps. This is one way that anyone can become a nanoinnovator, or in this case, a Google innovator.

Of course, this technology raises privacy issues. For example, movie theatres are worried that film pirates will use the glasses to create pirated copies. Gaming authorities have issued directives cautioning casinos that this technology could be used to facilitate cheating. Banks are concerned that the glasses could film ATM users as they enter their PIN numbers to withdraw cash. Some strip clubs in the United States have already established rules requiring patrons to check their Google Glass devices before entering the club. Regardless of these concerns, Google Glass is proving that “seeing is achieving.”

Graphene and Other 2D Nanomaterials

Nanomaterials that are one atom thick are called “2D materials,” although most of the actual materials are given the suffix “-ene” like graphene. Graphene was the first 2D nanomaterial and will be the first 2D material to be available commercially. In 2013, Samsung Electronics demonstrated a 30″ wide sheet of graphene. Other 2D materials include single atom layer tin – which is called “stanene.” Stanene could be the world's first material that can conduct electricity with 100% efficiency at room temperature, according to a team from Stanford University, the US Department of Energy, Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Germany [1]. The researchers coined the term “stanene” from the Latin name for tin, which is “stannum” and the suffix “-ene,” which is being used to describe materials that are single atom thick. Adding fluorine atoms to a layer of stanene could allow the material to conduct electricity at 100 °C (212 °F). The scientists created stanene as a simulation and still need to create it in a laboratory to show proof of concept and validate its commercial potential. Other examples of 2D nanomaterials that are being developed include phosphorene and silicene [2].

Military “Iron Man” Suits

Throughout history, wars have been won by innovations in combat technology, from the use of English longbows in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt to stealth bombers and night combat used in the first Iraq War (1991). The next war will likely include state-of-the-art heads-up helmet displays that deliver a full spectrum of combat information to combat fighter pilots as well as on-the-ground infantry – sort of a military version of Google Glass. Infantry troops will wear powered exoskeletons that allow each soldier to carry weapons and equipment weighing hundreds of pounds – a skeletal version of this is the Lockheed-Martin HULC, which is available today. Nextgen versions will be full body combat suits that will make soldiers look like a cross between Iron Man and Robocop.

Nano-enabled composite materials are currently being incorporated in superstrength combat suits that completely enclose a soldier to support mobile combat. These suits include lightweight body armor, built-in portable weapons systems, target identification (for aircraft and artillery), communications, climate control, medical diagnostics, bioweapon filters, and more. These suits also have the ability to identify a broken bone or wound and surround the break with a cast or stabilize a bleeding wound. In 2014, RevMedX announced an innovation called XStat that treats battlefield wounds with tiny sponges that expand to stabilize combat wounds – a variation of this technology could be incorporated into a combat suit.

For troops fighting in the desert where temperatures can swing from baking to freezing, the suit stabilizes the temperature, like an astronaut's space suit. They can link to overhead surveillance drones to provide real-time over-the-horizon images of enemy positions and targets.

Heads-up displays in the soldier's helmet can show infrared images of enemy soldiers for night fighting, while using stealth technology to block visual and infrared detection by the enemy. These suits, which exist in experimental military programs, use lightweight carbon composites that are already used in body armor, flexible electronics, and solar panels enabled by nanotechnology. It's impossible to predict which country's army will use these innovations or the first war where they will be used, but it is fairly certain that at some point tactical combat suits will begin to resemble the full body suits worn by the armies of clone troopers in Star Wars.

Nanoskins for Buildings

Nanoskins for buildings are beginning to find commercial applications. Covering buildings or walls of rooms with nanoskins will increasingly allow control of climate, light, sound, and temperature and will help enable the construction of net-zero energy use buildings. The first applications of nanocoatings are designed to protect the surfaces of buildings and machines from rain, snow, sand, dust, and pollutants.

Baiku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is known as the “land of fire,” so it is appropriate that the bold new Socar Tower is designed in the shape of a stylized flame. The tower is designed to withstand winds up to 190 km/h and is able to resist an earthquake up to 9 on the Richter scale. To protect the building from the elements, glass surfaces are covered with a nanoglass coating called NG-1314, which protects the outer surfaces and reduces the amount of dust that will accumulate on the glass. The weather-resistant coating was developed by Nanovations Pty Ltd., an Australian nanotechnology product manufacturer. Nanovations specializes in advanced ultrathin coating solutions for glass surfaces exposed to harsh environments. The company's glass coatings cover up to 15 times more surface area than other types of coatings, which reduces the cost while enhancing performance.

Paint-On Batteries Provide “Thin Power”

In 2012, a group of researchers from Rice University announced the development of a “paint-on” lithium-ion battery. The team included Neelam Singh, Charudatta Galanda, Andrea Miranda, Akshay Mathkar, Wei Gao, Arava Leela, Mohana Reddy, Alexandru Vlad, and Pulickel M. Ajayan. In their seminal research paper, the team noted that the use of batteries has been traditionally constrained to a cylindrical or rectangular form factor, although thin, flexible, and stretchable batteries are beginning to emerge. The Rice group developed a spray paint using a combination of single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs), lithium cobalt oxide, Super P™ carbon, and ultrafine graphite into polyvinylidine fluoride and 1-methyl-2-pyrrolidone.

The group “painted” their battery material on ceramic tiles, spelling the word “RICE” in LED lights. They also painted batteries on glass, stainless steel, plastic, and on the curved side of a beer mug. One of the tiles was fitted to a solar power cell that demonstrated the feasibility of using solar power to recharge the spray painted batteries. Their early tests have successfully powered LED lights for 6 h.

It is easy to envision spray-on solar paints and coatings where solar cells are painted on instead of installed. One application involves integrating and embedding LED lights into the battery coating to produce painted-on lighting surfaces. In the future, an entire side of a building might be painted with a high-tech coating that combines painted on batteries and LED pixels integrated with motion sensors. The walls of a prison might automatically light up if an escaped prisoner is detected. An office or building might light up if an unauthorized intruder walks into a high-security facility such as a nuclear power plant or public utility.

Neelam Singh, a materials scientist, has predicted that consumers may one day use paint-on batteries just like we now paint houses and cars. The current design contains toxic materials that prevent use outdoors, however, the team is working on more environment-friendly versions that will be more suitable for use outdoors, along with improved coupling to solar cells.

Peel-and-Stick Thin-Film Solar Cells

Science is on track to developing “peel-and-stick” thin-film solar cells <1 µm thick that can be applied to almost any substrate and used to power a wide variety of products from solar cells to portable electronics and even military devices.

In January 2013, this innovation was demonstrated by Qi Wang, principal scientist, from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy (NREL), and Xiaolin Zheng at Stanford University. The two collaborators met at a conference in 2012 where Dr. Wang was giving a presentation on solar cells and Dr. Zheng discussed her peel-and-stick technology, developed with NREL engineer William Nemeth. Less than a year later, the collaboration resulted in a demonstration of a peel-and-stick solar film powering a solar cell, which was reported in Scientific Reports (Nature) [3].

It is intriguing to think that one day we may buy solar cells in “peel-and-stick” sheets that can be applied to almost any portable electronic device, and used to power those devices by exposing them to sunlight.

Self-Healing Concrete

When we think about technological innovation, most of us don't think much about concrete. It's not as glamorous as building atomic scale computer chips or using nanoparticles to cure cancer, but it's a huge business and it's ubiquitous. Nanotechnology has already enabled improvements in the formulation of building materials, and more changes are looming on the horizon, specifically in concrete.

Imagine a highway with a lot of heavy truck traffic that begins forming cracks in the roadbed. But in this road, the cracks heal themselves. Imagine that buildings and bridges that deteriorate over time are able to resist corrosion from salt and pollution and are also able to self-heal cracks as they form.

“The Romans were using concrete 2,000 years ago – they even used iron to reinforce the concrete, which builders do today,” observes Patrick Ennis, a venture capitalist at Intellectual Ventures who was an early venture capital pioneer at Arch Ventures. “If you brought a Roman engineer from 200 B.C. here and showed him concrete, he would know what it is and how to make it. Show him an i-phone and he'll think you're a magician. In another few years, we'll be seeing some nano-enabled changes in concrete that will seem like magic. These will be the first major changes in the formulation of concrete, in more than 2,000 years.”

“I think we'll see a next generation of concrete that will be superior across every attribute from strength to weight,” Ennis predicts. “It will have resistance to salt, which a huge issue in the winter. It will be self-healing. When a crack begins to form in the concrete, it will heal before it can proliferate. In critical applications such as concrete roads where heavy trucking damages the roadbed, an acute crack in the road will heal itself.”

If we extend this metaphor to other areas where “self-healing materials” would be extremely valuable, we can point to research that is underway now to produce self-healing aircraft wings, self-healing roads, and self-healing shelters for extreme environments.

Sensors That Can Detect Anything

We are fast developing the ability to inexpensively, efficiently, and wirelessly detect almost anything – from motion, light, temperature, vibration and humidity, to chemical pollutants and poisons. In the coming decade, virtually anything that can be measured will be measured.

The best place to see this sensor revolution is in your mobile phone. If you have an Android device, you can download a plug-in from iMobLife called Sensor Box that detects sensors in the device. The number and type of sensors in your phone may surprise you. The Samsung Galaxy S4, made in South Korea and introduced in 2013, was the first major smartphone to include sensors to measure pressure, temperature, and humidity as well as a gyroscope that lets you autorotate the screen. Subsequent generations have even more sensors. New smartphones contain fingerprint sensors for biometric identification and eye scanning sensors that keep the screen turned on as long as the user is viewing it. Gestural sensors allow phone users to navigate the screen without actually touching the screen. In the coming decade, nanosensors will enhance robotic devices such as robots that mimic human movements, reactions, and intelligence as well as insect-sized flying drones and swarms of sensors.

Star Trek-Style Replicators Using 3D and 4D Printing

In just a few years, the price of a desktop 3D printer has fallen from several thousand dollars to <$500 for a small unit used by hobbyists and students. More than a dozen companies market 3D printers. NASA has an open innovation project designed to identify new ideas for using 3D printing to engineer components, make repairs, and make food from raw materials – which will be needed by future space missions. In the future, astronauts will use a 3D printer on Mars or on the surface of the moon to create a custom bolt, a nail, or anything structural that might be needed there. The raw materials may include nanomaterials.

Medical researchers such as Anthony Atala are already using 3D printers to spray stem cells on scaffolds to regenerate human organs. In the coming decade, 3D printers will allow us to “print” products at home. A company will send us a code and maybe a raw material kit or some cartridges that we'll plug into our 3D printer and – presto – the product will be produced in our home or office, instead of being delivered.

A few years ago, while earning a master's degree in environmental studies, I took a nanotechnology course taught by Dr. Jody Roberts at the University of Pennsylvania. During one of his lectures, Jody mused, “Imagine what would happen if nanoparticles of carbon are used as the feedstock for a 3D printer – this could be used to create food, fuel, almost anything organic, like the replicators on Star Trek.” I've always thought this was a terrific concept and probably one of the ways that a Star Trek replicator could be engineered. Today, hobbyists are using 3D printers to design prototypes, which are easy to design because they can vary the dimensions, colors, or materials until they reach the ideal configuration. Chefs in New York have used 3D printers to create food from raw materials. The 3D printers now use three or more materials to create such sophisticated items as working batteries.

The 3D printers are just beginning to gain a foothold among early adopters in the marketplace, and while this is happening, the technology is being pushed and expanded in new directions. One variation is called 4D printing – the “fourth dimension” means that 3D printed objects have the ability to change, mutate, expand, or somehow reconfigure themselves after they are created, when exposed to air, water, temperature, chemicals, or other change catalysts. Add nanoparticles and nanomaterials to the mix and this fourth dimension can include novel properties that are only available at the nanoscale.

Tattoos Become Functional

Hundreds of millions of people have decorative tattoos – as many as 100 million people in the United States alone. In the coming decade, tattoos will evolve from decorative adornment to functional application.

Dr. Robert Langer at MIT predicts that one day “we will have tattoos you can wear that will tell you if you're sick – basically you'd have nanoparticles that change their nature based on signals in the body and change depending if you have a specific kind of marker that signals a disease. The tattoo might change color, for example. With the right technologies, you could detect anything from heart disease to cancer.”

There are many ways to incorporate nanosensors or bionanosensors in tattoos that respond to changes in skin chemistry. This capability suggests a wide variety of novel applications. For example, a tattoo may change color when a biomarker is detected that is related to a disease. Children or adults with a high risk of acquiring a disease can be given a tattoo that turns color if the disease is present. Researchers are using nanotechnology to develop biosensor tattoos that measure glucose levels, tattoos that act as lie detectors, and electronic tattoos that can communicate with wireless devices. Tattoos can deliver drugs that need to be administered gradually by absorption through the skin. One day soon, you may go to the office or to school and a friend will say, “Uh-oh, your neck tattoo is turning blue. You better go get a doctor.” It could be as simple as that.

Universal Gene Testing

As discussed earlier in the book, genetic tests are well on their way to becoming a standard test for cancer patients, and are being used to diagnose patients with known hereditary risks for breast cancer and other diseases. As individual genomes become more affordable and reliable, genomic tests will become standard.

Molecular scientist David Bachinsky predicts, “I imagine that someday you'll come in sick to your doctor's office, he will take a swab, sequence the information, and you'll get a solution based on the genetic analysis.” He also predicts that babies will get a genetic sequence when they're born, and this will provide a baseline that will be used to measure changes throughout their lives. Genetic analysis will be a major success story in the coming decade, although it's questionable whether the analysis will be provided by a supercomputer in a laboratory, a desktop system, or a portable “lab on a chip.”

13.1 Keeping Nanoinnovation on Your Radar Screen

These are only a few examples of the many hundreds of nanoinnovations and nano-enabled innovations that are looming on the near horizon. It is truly amazing how many of these innovations have the ability to dramatically transform industries and markets, and improve our lives. Nanoinnovation is changing the world.

Whoever you are, whatever your role in life, you need to know about this technological revolution. You need to keep nanoinnovation on your radar screen. Find ways to get involved and support this technological renaissance. Together, we can help nanoinnovation to fulfill its remarkable potential.


  1. 1. Xu, Y., Yan, B., Zhang, H.-J., Wang, J., Xu, G., tang, P., Duan, W., and Zhang, S.-C. (2013) Large-gap quantum spin hall insulators in tin films. Physical Review Letters, 111, 136804.
  2. 2. Barras, C. (2014) Graphene rival ‘phosphorene’ is born to be a transistor, New Scientist, January.
  3. 3. Lee, C.H., Kim, D.R., Cho, I.S., Nemeth, W., Wang, Q., and Zeng, X. (2012) Peel-and-stick: fabricating thin film solar cell on universal substrates. Scientific Reports. doi: 10.1038/srep01000.