5 Materials That Will Make The World as We Know It Obsolete

As weird as today must seem to somebody who grew up in the 50s, what with our Internet memes and Bluetooth devices that make us shout conversations into the air like madmen, the future is about to get a whole lot weirder.

New materials like carbon nanotubes and the like are going to change everything in the next few decades. And we mean everything.

#5. Gadgets That Heal Themselves

So you're riding high with your new iPhone, feeling like a man of the 21st Century--if the thing had legs it would be your robot sidekick and the two of you could fight crime together. But with the phone in your front pocket, you lean over a rail and hear a crack. You silently pray that it's not your iPhone screen breaking, but is rather just one of your testicles rupturing.

Heartbroken, you look at the cracks in the screen and wish the thing could just magically heal itself, like the later Terminators.

Well, some day, it will.

Holy Shit! With What?

Self-healing Materials

OK, so you aren't going to be able to smash the living shit out of your gadgets and have them magically reassemble like the T-1000, but baby steps, people. The first type of self-healing material was developed using microcapsules of resin that would crack open and fill in gaps caused by small cracks, sealing them instantly.


They're also developing plastics that smooth out breaks or scratches when heated.

Photo courtesy University of Illinois.

That's just the beginning, though. The U.S. Air Force is funding a project to develop entire complex systems with the end goal of a machine that can heal itself just as an organism would. Only much faster.

How Will it Change the World?

We're guessing the Air Force would like a plane that can be punched full of anti-aircraft fire and then heal itself up right before your eyes, while the pilot gives you the finger. It will also be helpful for space travel where minor hull damage can be disastrous and repairs are a huge pain in the ass what with the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space and all.

Tragedies like these could be avoided.

But otherwise, anything that now can be broken, cracked or chipped could be made self-healing, including cars that never rust or lose their paint because they have an invisible protective coating that automatically fills in scratches. Yep, some vandal can come along and scratch up your car door with his keys, and it'll heal itself right in front of him like Christine.

#4. Pants That Are Smarter Than You

Of course, our whole iPhone disaster scenario above was based on the fact that as a society we still are stuffing valuable, sensitive electronics in our pockets. We're willing to bet a few of you have accidentally put your iPod through a spin cycle; or dropped your laptop or crushed it between books in your backpack.

Wouldn't it be nice if electronics weren't things you put in your pockets but rather things with pockets? Wouldn't it be nice if you could know you always had your gadgets with you, because you're wearing them?

Holy Shit! With What?


Some people at Virginia Tech (among others) are developing new fabrics that will let them embed batteries, processors and memory right into the threads. You won't have to worry about where to stash your iPhone when you're wearing those hotpants. The hotpants will be the phone.

But it gets really crazy once you factor in carbon nanotubes a.k.a. "the miracle material mentioned in every single article anyone ever writes about the future." These super-strong, super-thin, super-conductive tubes will make sure that not only are your fabrics smart, but damned near indestructible.

How Will it Change the World?

Your kid could some day have a shirt that plays a whole HD episode of SpongeBob on his chest wherever he goes. After all, they can already make thin "e-paper" monitors out of nanotubes. IBM has used graphene (the stuff carbon nanotubes are made of) to make a transistor just one atom thick--which means you could eventually make a computer processor that could be mistaken for a piece of lint.

Workout gear that's also an MP3 player, hiking gear that's a GPS. . . hell, you could have a unitard that displays a life-sized video image of your naked body. Let your imagination run wild.

Uh, cool?

But then you have the serious uses, like real-time monitoring of medical patients, including all of their vital signs. The military could do the same with soldiers, marking their location and physical state at any given moment via their brainy uniforms.

If that starts to sound a little Big Brotherish to you, you should know they are developing e-textiles for rugs and furniture in buildings like hotels, that allow them to keep track of what their employees are doing (i.e. making sure every room has been cleaned) and even the activities of the guests.

Enjoy your post-traumatic stress disorder, Best Western Hotel Bed Monitor!

#3. A Germ-Free World

As we have pointed out before, the world is far filthier than you think. About 500 years after somebody invented a microscope, we still can't get it through our heads that our computer keyboard is filthier than the urinal at the airport.

We can't see germs and so we don't worry about them, and we sure as hell aren't going to take time out of every day to disinfect our doorknobs and telephones after we sneezed on them.

And that's too bad, because those germy surfaces are still how most diseases are spread. The last time you got sick, odds are it was because of a surface that someone somewhere didn't bother to clean. Are we ever going to get around this?

The answer is yes.

Holy Shit! With What?

Antimicrobial Materials.

Scientists have developed polymers that can actually kill most microbes on contact. They are made by impregnating plastics with special antimicrobial dyes or other chemicals and the best part is that they don't actually release any chemicals or particles. The chemicals change the structure of the plastic just enough that they are deadly to bacteria and other germs; basically the plastic becomes the disinfectant.

The point is they will kill the germs that touch them, but won't hurt you if you, say, pass out drunk with your face pressed against the germ-proof floor tiles.

This is the future of hand-washing. Or rather, NOT hand-washing.

How Will it Change the World?

Practically anything that could become a repository for mankind's redistributable filth could be made with this stuff, including meat packing materials, so you don't get those massive E. coli outbreaks that seem to cause a hamburger recall every six months.

Or how about mildew-free shower stalls and bathtubs? Or forever-sterile surgical equipment? If you thought that stuff was already sterile, you should know that 100,000 people a year in the U.S. die from infections they got while in the hospital, more than are killed by AIDS, breast cancer and car accidents combined. Turns out it's actually really hard to keep things germ-free in a building full of sick people.

So just imagine a wondrous future where when you accidentally drop your corn dog in the bus station, you don't hesitate to pick it up and keep right on eating it.

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