New arrivals: Glass that bends, spray-on clothes, building materials for Mars
What are we to make of the gifts of civilisation? The modern world has given us life-saving drugs (thank you), infant incubators (thank you) and synchronised traffic lights (ditto). But it’s also given us the little things: frozen parathas, probiotic dahi, spill-proof dabbas to pack them in, and long-lasting cola with longer-lasting regret.
Inventions of the past few years include that which we didn’t need but still want (unicorn-finish hair colour), that which no one asked for (un-poppable bubble-wrap) and that which we must surely fear (3D-printing plans for plastic guns). Some developments, however, sneak into our lives unnoticed. Take a look.
A way to build in space
We haven’t figured out how to colonise Mars, but we do have the construction materials ready. You’ve probably heard of grapheme, a carbon-based flexible material that is 10 times stronger than steel and about 5% as dense. Of course we will use it on earth. Graphene is already showing up in electronic devices, tennis racquets, food packaging, inks and machines. Eventually: space elevators.
Glass that resists grubbiness
Ever wonder why it takes so much effort to polish a champagne glass but your touchscreen looks as good as new after just a quick wipe? Most touchscreens today are covered in Gorilla Glass – chemically treated to be lighter, tougher and more scratch-resistant (though we still find a way). Coming soon: Willow Glass (it can bend!).
Elevators that go sideways too
Yes. Just like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Elevator company Thyssenkrupp’s new tech, which they’re calling MULTI, replaces the rope-and-pulley mechanism with a complex system of magnets. This means lift cars can go any which way in tunnels and shafts. For now, prototypes exist only at their Germany headquarters. But the system works.
A doomsday vault for the world’s seeds
Seed banks, essentially frozen security deposit boxes for plant life in case of war, natural or man-made disaster, have been around for almost a century. But it’s only a decade ago that we got a master vault for the world’s seeds. The Global Seed Vault, built deep into a snowy mountainside of a remote island off Norway, has been slowly building its banks and now holds vacuum packed seeds from close to a million crop varieties. Withdrawals have been made since 2015, when war-torn regions like Syria have needed to replenish local agricultural stocks.
Paint that repels heat and electricity
Everyone needs a little bit of Japanese aerospace technology in their lives. And videos about gaina, the ceramic-based paint, make you think you’re watching an elaborate hoax. Coat a pan in gaina and it keeps ice cubes safe from a flame. Cover rocket noses with it and they can go anywhere. It’s incombustible, sound-retardant and frankly a little unbelievable. Now if only it were cheap.
Tough as stone, soft as plastic
If you’ve rested your arms on a granite-looking store countertop, bench or restaurant table only to find that it isn’t stone cold, you’ve encountered Corian. The material, popular since 2013, is made from acrylic polymer and an ingredient derived from bauxite ore – and it’s everywhere.
A motherlode for all our data
What will happen to all your selfies in case of a war or apocalypse? More importantly, what will happen to government data, documents, digitised records? At the Arctic World Archive, which opened last year, individuals, governments and private institutions can store their data for a fee. The vault is in Norway, close to the Global Seed Vault, deep underground, offline and impervious to nuclear attack or hacking (supposedly). Data is stored on a specially developed QR-code and optical film software that they claim will survive at least 500 years. Governments of Brazil, Mexico and Norway have already made deposits.
Pants that are exercise gurus
You’re familiar with the haptic feedback that allows your phone to vibrate when a call or notification comes through. A company called Wearable X has developed ‘exercise clothing’ with similar tech built into the fibres, in areas like hips, knees and ankles, so that your pants can connect to an app and subtly guide your physiotherapy routine, asana or workout.
Clothes you can spray on
A British company has worked out a way to put clothing-like fibres in a pressurised can so that you can spray them on to a surface or the body and deliver coverage. Kind of like cheese or cream. The technology for Fabrican allows the fibres to dry and bond when sprayed, offering a complete non-woven fit – making it great for a bra, plaster cast, or just an extra pocket for your tote bag. What we don’t quite know: how to take it off!
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