Living in a Material World: The New Information Technology

8/4/09

[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 what Mother Nature provided and took matters into our own hands.

—Materials science is also playing a significant role in solar power by helping companies manipulate chemical bonds to bump the rate of photonic energy capture in a given solar cell. Limiting photovoltaic cell construction to naturally occurring materials would have long ago eliminated solar power as an economically viable alternative.

—Seattle-based Modumetal is producing nanolaminate alloys that will soon replace conventional metals and composites in many applications. The company’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.

The big issue seems to be making sure that new materials 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. VCs (like OVP) are also clearly on board, and are adding materials startups (like EnerG2) to their portfolios.

Another significant issue is education. 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 dot-com 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.

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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  • Bruce

    Thanks for the post! It’s great to see that there is excitement for materials scientists out there. I wonder though, where are the entry level positions for materials scientists? What words of advice do you offer to those who graduated high school in the mid 2000s, got excited about the impending nano revolution that was generating so much buzz based on fundamental advances discussed in this article, and have now recently graduated materials science programs to find a poor economy and technology companies seeking experienced materials professionals? Truth be told, most of my undergraduate classmates are bankers, consultants, or PhD candidates.

  • Mary Rivet

    In 2002, Chris Meyer published “It’s Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology and Business.” The book described “The Molecular Economy,” comprising nanotech, biotech,and materials science, saying there would be a convergence of these molecule-scale technologies similar to the digital convergence of communications, computing and media.

    The book also discussed the parallels between the industrial, information, and molecular economies. I’ve posted the two key charts at http://gallery.me.com/maryrivet#100076

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