– Stanford University Economist Paul Romer
The 1990s were the decade of the computer scientist. Digital bits and bytes improved the quality of life and raised the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people around the world; Paul Romer's resource rearrangement was frenetically – and highly successfully – executed throughout the decade and into the first years of the 21st century. However, as we close out the first decade of this century, materials and molecules have replaced bits and bytes as the powerful agents for a next generation of prosperity. The materials scientist has become the newest economic accelerator.
To put it another way – and perhaps less complex – materials science is the new information technology, and it's helping the United States achieve dominance as the post-petroleum era dawns and spreads to virtually every continent. The new energy economy of the coming decade promises some of the same economic momentum and standard-of-living improvements created by information technology in the 1990s.
Indeed, materials science and chemistry are the nearly perfect embodiments of Paul Romer's premise of technology and discovery as a key economic driver. These "hard" sciences create and combine chemicals, polymers and solutions in an infinite – and infinitely promising – number of variations. The possibilities created by materials science open up countless innovative opportunities in the new energy economy.A Rich Mixture
Putting new things together in new ways is also changing our views about energy storage. My company, EnerG2, uses materials science to assemble breakthrough products at the molecular level. Right now, we're focused on customizing electrode materials to enhance energy and power density in ultracapacitors, which store and release energy faster than conventional batteries. Controlling the molecular structure and assembly process of our engineered materials at the earliest stage possible provides flexibility, lowers costs and maximizes performance. We gave up on what Mother Nature provided and took matters into our own hands.Manipulating Chemical Bonds
Switching from energy to health care, a number of players are synthesizing molecular constructs into new materials that never existed before. As a result, health care providers around the world are now able to use more sophisticated and effective drug delivery systems that time and target the release of pharmaceuticals in the human body. The safety and efficacy of these proven systems simply would not have been possible without advancements in the underlying materials science.From Hard Drives to Hard Science
The new emphasis on hard science reflects the sober and substantive times in which we currently live. From 1994 to 2004, we were caught up in the heady and intangible world of software code. Mysterious rows of 0s and 1s propelled computer performance to previously unthinkable levels, both at home and in the office. We knew our desktops and laptops – and the software running them – were making us much more productive and communicative, but we couldn't see it. Paul Romer's resource rearrangement was occurring in a highly abstract and virtually invisible level. We grew "irrationally optimistic" that these often intangible technologies would continue indefinitely producing tangible economic benefit.
Our very tangible problems have piled up since then, however, and we need real solutions, especially in the spheres of health care and energy. We're now relying more and more on the truly breakthrough results provided by materials science, which can help build real-world products that have the potential to truly lift our society.
One of the more substantial, tangible and beneficial results of the materials science revolution can be seen today in the "old-economy" world of metals and alloys. Seattle-based Modumetal is producing nanolaminate alloys that will soon replace conventional metals and composites in many applications; the company and its products are excellent and exciting examples of the truly global and substantial benefits delivered by working the hard problems with hard science.
Modumetal's new materials are stronger and lighter than steel, run longer and hotter than nickel alloys, and are more corrosion resistant and cost less than stainless. They'll initially be used in military armor and then eventually in cars, planes, buildings and other transportation and construction sectors. The company applied an expertise in materials science and nano-scale assembly to re-think the metal production industry entirely. The assumptions that had driven literally hundreds of years of thinking have effectively been rewritten.The Role of Money
The big issue is making sure that new materials like those that gave rise to these examples get the proper funding to develop. Fortunately, the Federal government understands the role that materials advancements will play in determining our future economic growth and has decided to invest capital in companies and research teams with the best ideas in this space. Venture capitalists are also on board, and are adding materials startups to their portfolios.
Another significant issue is education. For many years, there has been an outcry that our nation's schools have failed to emphasize subjects like math and science and subsequently are not producing the necessary number of competent engineers, technologists and scientists. The disappointment and concern is real. To make the hard sciences the underpinning of the new energy economy will require more than just capital for entrepreneurs and business executives. It will also require a new generation of trained scientists.
It's fascinating what a difference a decade makes. During the heyday of the information technology revolution, everyone seemed to be looking for the dotcom or enterprise software company that could produce untold riches. Today, we need organic chemistry and materials science majors to mine the periodic table for the right compounds that will both leave society richer and generate new levels economic growth. Looking back, we've obviously redefined what it means to live in a material world.
Image of nano-structured carbon molecules via EnerG2.