Living in a Material World: The New Information Technology

Opinion

[This post originally appeared on OVP Venture Partners’ blog—Eds.]

Many observers, myself included, consider the 1990s the decade of the computer scientist. Work in digital bits and bytes not only generated significant wealth, it raised the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people around the world. However, as we close out the first decade of this century, I believe that materials and molecules have already supplanted bits and bytes as the powerful agents for the next round of prosperity and growth. This is the decade of the materials scientist.

Stanford University economist Paul Romer stated, “Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable.” In the 1990s and into the first years of the 21st century, this resource rearrangement was frenetically—and highly successfully—executed in the arena of information technology. Today, that resource rearrangement has slowed in IT and has accelerated in materials science. To put it another way, materials science is the new information technology and it is spurring advancement in the new energy economy of this and the coming decades. This shift 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 today 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—and elsewhere.

Several examples illustrate this idea:

—In a branch of physical chemistry known as exploratory synthesis, chemists mix selected elements at different temperatures and pressures with the only objective being: to see what happens. Recently, a mixture of copper, yttrium, barium, and oxygen was found to be a superconductor at temperatures far higher than anyone had previously thought possible, which will ultimately have a host of far-reaching implications for electricity transmission.

—My company, Seattle-based 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 effectively gave up on … Next Page »

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Chris Wheaton is the co-founder and chief operating officer of EnerG2, an advanced materials and energy storage company in Seattle. Follow @

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