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
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
is developing nanoparticles to deliver cancer-killing drugs. So is
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
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.
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.
is using 3-D printers to make aircraft parts, and Align
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
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
Companies that should benefit the most are those making 3-D printers and the
materials they use, says Benowitz, include 3D Systems
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