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BEYOND EVERYDAY TECHNOLOGY…

It is silver-gray, but it is not steel, it is soft although it is a metal, it does not corrode even in high temperatures, and it is resistant to inorganic acids. It does not dissolve in aqua regia, to which even gold succumbs. I could go on to say it is more precious than gold, but it is not used to make rings. Although it is anodized, it has a beautiful azure blue sheen.

I’m taking my holiday in the East this year, the Far East, but I have journeyed West first, practically the Wild West. It was a trip into the world of future technology, which is being discovered by teams of researchers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Since the company I manage operates in the technology market, I often wonder what lies ahead for us in times of astonishing technological progress. What will the future trends be?

There has been a lot of talk about wearables recently – electronic devices worn “on our body”, sewn into our clothes, etc. It is hard to imagine today the many different applications of all these devices, but one thing is certain: they will be energy-intensive. To ensure our clothes are not too heavy, the devices buried in them must be very light. So, they must have small batteries. And this limits their use to those functions which they can perform on their own, without connecting to the Internet. Thus, we will not be seeing any internet of clothes any time soon (to paraphrase the expression: the Internet of things or IOT).

Any radio communication requires considerable amounts of energy, if only temporarily. These can be stored using capacitors. Better yet, super-capacitors which have high capacity, short charging times and minimum voltage (in the order of 2- 3 Volts).

A revolutionary idea was born at MIT: capacitors made from niobium (Nb) nanowires which can be easily woven into the fabric of, say, a T-shirt, which can send data about the condition of the athlete’s body to the coach. Since niobium’s melting point is 2,5 thousand degrees Celsius, it could be used for the same purpose in protective clothes worn in high temperatures by steelworkers and firemen.

The MIT researchers believe it will be a relatively cheap solution. The annual niobium extraction is quite high – over 60 tonnes, of which Brazil accounts for 90%, Canada for 5%, while Australia, Congo, Mozambique and Rwanda for the remaining 5% (source: English language Wikipedia). Given the thickness of the strands which make the nanowires, niobium supplies are not likely to run out any time soon.

The discovery is good news – niobium nanowires have superior properties than carbon nanotubes, and thanks to its physical properties niobium is much easier to use. And since the wearables market is estimated to be worth 7 billion dollars this year, rising to over 12.5 billion dollars by 2018, we are likely to see clothes-capacitors soon. Will the company I manage become in part a textiles manufacturer one day? My lips are sealed.

For more go to the MIT blog:
http://mitei.mit.edu/news/tiny-wires-could-provide-big-energy-boost

A very interesting site where you can see a sample of niobium against the entire periodic table (use the little green arrows next to the name of the elements):
http://www.seilnacht.com/Lexikon/41Niob.htm

More about wearables in BusinessInsider:
http://www.businessinsider.com/the-wearable-computing-market-report-2014-10

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