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Wednesday, January 1, 2014


Advanced materials

Scientists are developing new materials with amazing properties, such as superconductivity and superstrength. Developments in this area could lead to revolutionary breakthroughs in computing, power storage, alternative energy, water purification and medicine.
Graphene, or superthin sheets of graphite, conducts electricity amazingly well. So it could replace silicon as the base material used in chips, ushering in much greater speed for our devices. A graphene-based battery might power your phone for a week after a few minutes of charging. Graphene could also bring breakthroughs in solar cells and water purification. Carbon nanotubes, a kind of tubular graphene, might be used in new kinds of flexible, energy-efficient display screens.
Some kinds of nanoparticles, another type of advanced material, are already being used in products like sunscreen because they can block select wavelengths of light. But this is just the start. Because nanoparticles can be programmed for how to react with surroundings, they can be used to deliver lethal cancer treatments directly to tumors, sparing the rest of the body.
None of this is really new. Advances in steel changed how we make bridges, ships and buildings, helping bring about a second industrial revolution from 1860-1920. But there are challenges. Graphene and carbon nanotubes are too expensive for commercial production right now, and it could be a while before costs come down. There's also some evidence that nanotubes can be as harmful as asbestos when they're inhaled.
So which companies are leading the way here? AstraZeneca (AZN) is developing nanoparticles to deliver cancer-killing drugs. So is Celgene (CELG), which estimates that a nanoparticle-based anti-cancer drug called Abraxane could produce annual sales of $2 billion by 2017.
Besides these drug companies, Harris & Harris Group (TINY) could benefit from these trends, because it invests in companies developing nanotechnology. This company has also saw some insider buying in May.
Finally, beware of the overhyped, money-losing, penny stocks in graphite mining, graphene and nanotech equipment.
MakerBot Replicator 2 3-D printer produces a sculpture © Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

3-D printing
The cost of 3-D printers and the materials they use is going to fall so much over the next several years, even as performance improves, that they will revolutionize manufacturing, design and medicine.
With 3-D printers, you can build objects by layering on materials according to a preset design, instead of using injection molds or machining. They can print with plastics, metal, glass -- even living cells. One big advantage is that you can convert an idea from design to finished product quickly, bypassing the traditional manufacturing processes. Another plus is that you can make small, customized lots of products much more cheaply.
Already, Boeing (BA) is using 3-D printers to make aircraft parts, and Align Technology (ALGN) is using them to print dental appliances. Such printers are also being used to make replacement hip joints, custom hearing-aid pieces and iPhone cases.
As 3-D printing gets better and cheaper, it will bring big changes to manufacturing. A lot of production will return to developed countries from emerging markets. Companies will be able to cut costs by running leaner supply chains, and entrepreneurs will set up small shops to make complex custom products.
3-D printers are so revolutionary that it's tough to know where they will take us. "The real change will happen when designers think of products that can only be made with printers," says Matt Sanfilippo, executive director of the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems at Carnegie Mellon University. 3-D printers might even be used one day in medicine to print organs, says McKinsey.
Companies that should benefit the most are those making 3-D printers and the materials they use, says Benowitz, include 3D Systems (DDD) and Stratasys (SSYS).

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