As designers of embedded systems, we oftentimes end up focusing on (some may say obsessing over) nitty-gritty details about things like microcontrollers and memory architectures. As a result, we may miss a lot of things that are going on around us.
For example, I'm convinced we are poised to enter a new era of materials science that could have far-reaching impacts on the systems we develop.
Have you ever stood outside at night and watched moths fluttering around a light? I know I have, but one thing that never struck me is that you never see twinkling points of light reflecting off their eyes. It turns out that this is because the little rascals have evolved a special layer of nanostructures covering their eyes that captures light without allowing any to be reflected. This has inspired coatings that will improve the efficiency of solar cells and the sensitivity of optical sensors, and that will also allow us to view the screens of our smartphones and mobile computers in broad sunlight.
Did you ever read The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean? If not, do not delay, rush out and buy yourself a copy; you won’t be disappointed. As I wrote in this review, I discovered all sorts of interesting things in this tome, such as a super-acid with a pH of -31 that will eat through glass as ruthlessly as water through tissue paper.
Or take the fact that there are about 100 naturally occurring elements. Combining these elements in different ways allows the universe to create all sorts of materials, and to then use these materials to construct all sorts of things, from a humble bacon sandwich (I like bacon sandwiches) to something as astoundingly magnificently complicated as, well, yours truly.
Now, suppose that we doubled, tripled, or quadrupled the number of elements; what new materials might we see? Well, we may not be able to increase the number of elements, but we can do unexpected things with the ones we have. As Sam says in The Disappearing Spoon :
…for instance, thirteen aluminium atoms grouped together in the right way do a killer bromine: the two entities are indistinguishable in chemical reactions. This happens despite the cluster being thirteen times larger than a single bromine atom and despite aluminium being nothing like the lacrimatory poison-gas staple. Other combinations of aluminium can mimic noble gases, semiconductors, bone material like calcium, or elements from pretty much any other region of the periodic table. The clusters work like this…
My chum, Jay Dowling, just emailed me this link to an article about strong, light, and durable materials called schwarzites that feature complex, repeating patterns. First hypothesized by a German scientist, Hermann Schwarz, in the 1880s, these materials feature complex, curved geometries. Now, using 3D printers, scientists and engineers are making schwarzite structures in the lab; in the not-so-distant future, we may well be fabricating schwarzite-based micro-artifacts at the atomic scale.
Or what about this paper that describes a nickel-cobalt-iron layered double hydroxide (Ni-Co-Fe LDH) material that can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (nickel, cobalt, and iron are much cheaper than platinum and other precious metals that are currently used to produce hydrogen from water). Suppose we couple this with solar cells whose efficiency has been enhanced using the nanostructure films inspired by moths' eyes discussed earlier. Could this lead to cars whose only requirement is to be topped up with water?
Materials science is just one of the topics we'll be touching on in the Advanced Technologies for 21st Century Embedded Systems talk I'll be giving at the forthcoming Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in Silicon Valley. Happily, this talk will take place in the ESC Engineering Theater, which means it will be open to anyone to attend so long as they are flaunting a Free Expo Pass, but you do have to register.
Will you be attending ESC Silicon Valley? If so, be sure to stop me and say “Hi.” I'll be the one in the Hawaiian shirt. As always, all you have to do is shout “Max, Beer!” or “Max, Bacon!” to be assured of my undivided attention.