WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Innovative technologies emerging over the next decade promise to affect virtually all aspects of everyday society, from transportation to health care, communication to recreation.
Engineers and scientists envision super-efficient cars, "smart" offices equipped with myriad wireless sensors, a new class of miniature devices that dramatically speed up medical and biological testing, and electronic gear that runs for days on a single charge. Agricultural researchers hope to spawn a novel industry using sugars from paper and other wastes to make a variety of products. More compact and versatile robots will enter the work force. And artificial intelligence may help to improve the commercial power grid, reducing the frequency of brownouts.
While it's impossible to predict exactly what will happen, some future trends are obvious, says Warren Stevenson, associate dean of engineering at Purdue University.
"Certainly, automobiles are going to be different," he says.
Fuel-stingy cars will likely get about 80 miles to the gallon and use a "hybrid" drive system: an electric motor powered by batteries or fuel cells, supplemented with a gasoline or diesel engine only when needed for acceleration and high performance. However, the success of hybrids will depend largely on the perfection of a control system that switches automatically from one drive to the other.
"If you have two propulsive sources, you need to optimize when to use each one and to make it all happen smoothly," Stevenson says.
The automotive leap also will depend on the refinement of fuel cells, which generate electricity through electrochemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. Developed for use in spacecraft, fuel cells emit only water vapor and would ideally use pure hydrogen as a fuel. Because of technological challenges and potential hazards posed by pure hydrogen, early fuel-cell cars probably will draw their hydrogen from gasoline or some other hydrocarbon fuel. An on-board chemical plant will break down the fuel into its fundamental components, which include hydrogen.
In coming decades, fuel cells will likely evolve. Some visionaries predict that, before the middle of the next century, automobile fuel cells will generate enough electricity to run a house.
Another near-term innovation will be the proliferation of tiny, wireless electronic sensors the size of computer chips that will improve safety and make life easier in the workplace and home.
"I think, in general, everything that surrounds us will be 'smart,'" says Kent Fuchs (pronounced "fox"), head of the Purdue School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Some sensors will monitor the air for carbon monoxide and smoke. Others, linked via radio signals instead of wires, will automatically adjust the lighting and temperature. Employees may wear electronic cards or badges that specify their whereabouts.
"Basically, there will be no privacy in the future, that's for sure," Fuchs jokes.
The badges might be programmed with a wearer's atmospheric preferences, much like a system designed for Bill Gates' home.
"When he walks into a room, it senses that it's Bill Gates walking into that room so the lights turn on a certain way, and the colors and temperature change to his liking," says Fuchs, who believes that such innovations will become commonplace in the 21st century.
"There are going to be a bazillion of these embedded chips, in the doorknobs, light bulbs, tables, chairs, all networked together, the whole shebang," says T.N. Vijaykumar, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue.
Advances in electronics and computers will have a direct impact on business travel, as improvements to videoconferencing make the long-distance medium much more realistic, perhaps even three-dimensional.
"You won't need to fly to San Francisco to have a meeting," Stevenson says. "You'll just have to sit in a chair and push the right buttons."
Wireless Internet connections also will be refined, and new computer software and hardware will make cellular phone communications more seamless.
"You won't have to plug your computer into a telephone jack anymore," says David Janes, a principal research engineer in the Purdue School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "You will be able to drive under an overpass, or in downtown Indianapolis, and not have your cell phone fade out. And you won't have to worry about airplane flutter every time an airplane flies overhead."
Meanwhile, innovative electronics and software will increase the operating efficiencies of equipment such as laptop computers and cellular phones so that they run longer on a single charge. These devices will "use knowledge of what is running on the system and then very intelligently shut down the parts that are not needed," Vijaykumar says. In doing so, power will be conserved and batteries will last longer.
The higher efficiency will make wireless communications more practical, as well.
"You can't carry a hundred pounds of batteries with you if you want to go into the wilderness for a week and still stay in contact," Janes says.
And, if you tend to get lost in the hinterlands, Global Positioning Systems already are available that use satellites to pinpoint your exact location. Now software advances are making satellite imaging systems so user-friendly that they might soon be accessible to everyone from farmers to real estate developers. The software will handle the most mathematically rigorous work so that the systems can be operated by people who don't happen to have doctoral degrees in signal processing. At the same time, the satellites themselves are improving and will soon be providing more data that can be used in numerous applications, including crop-yield analysis and transportation planning.
In the medical arena, high-quality, low-cost imaging techniques that don't use X-rays may allow earlier detection of breast tumors and the noninvasive monitoring of blood chemistry. An approach known as optical diffusion imaging uses safe visible or infrared light. Although the light is scattered by tissue, researchers already have demonstrated how sophisticated computer processing techniques can remove the fuzziness, resulting in sharp images.
In other medical-related research, scientists expect to be able to merge biotechnology with computer science, creating a new class of miniature sensors that will dramatically speed up the search for therapeutic compounds from plants and animals in the rain forests and oceans. The sensors might also be used to quickly diagnose patients by testing a tiny pin-prick's worth of blood or to instantly analyze meats and other foods for bacterial contamination.
The experimental concept is called MIBBS, for micro-scale integrated bio-separation and bio-sensing systems, says Michael Ladisch, a Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering who is seeking funding for the research.
MIBBS could enable field scientists to rapidly test thousands of plants and animals for the presence of disease-fighting proteins. About the size of a hand-held calculator, the probes would require only a small sample of material to complete analyses that now must be carried out in time-consuming, laboratory procedures.
Other developments are likely to include:
• An entirely new industry that uses sugars derived from cellulose in paper and agricultural wastes to make a wide range of products, from biodegradable plastics to new fuels and solvents.
• Better and smaller robots for a nearly unlimited range of applications, from medicine to household maintenance.
• Computerized systems that reduce the number of power failures by accurately predicting changing demands for electricity and then automatically taking steps to meet those demands.
• Ultra-compact video and audio equipment with far more storage capacity.
• Nontoxic rocket fuels that will be cheap to handle, making space flight less expensive.
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