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Future R&D Environments: A Report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology
compasses, gyroscopes, switches, and, perhaps, microtransformers. Today’s alchemists rely on computers—for modeling, computational chemistry, and computational physics—sensitive imaging studies, and nondestructive testing. Even better tools are needed as the science surges forward.
One area likely to progress rapidly over the next decade is that of molecular self-assembly to inexpensively produce atomically precise materials and devices. Harnessing this phenomenon will provide a critical element in fabricating new materials, nanomachines, and electronic devices. Some examples of self-assembling materials in development include smart plastics that assemble themselves into photonic crystals, spinach-based opto-electronic circuits for possible use in logic devices and ultrafast switches, and inorganics and organics that self-assemble between two electrodes to form transistors. Earlier this year, English scientists reported what they called the equivalent of catalytic antibodies for synthetic chemists—a dynamic solution that enables molecules to arrange themselves into the best combination to bind to a specific target. Self-assembly has important applications in the biomedical sciences. One technique, for example, uses a system in which molecules assemble into countless combinations that are quickly tested for their ability to bind to receptors.
A great deal remains unknown about the process of molecular self-assembly or how to utilize it for producing new materials or new applications. Even more challenging is the creation of materials that self-assemble from two or more types of molecules.
TRENDS IN ENERGY, ENVIRONMENT, AND THE PLANET
Fuel cells will enter the marketplace shortly as part of the power systems of automobiles and for use as portable electric generators, and they may soon provide power for smaller devices such as cell phones and laptop computers. Solar cells and nuclear power plants will both receive greater attention in the next decade, but significant problems remain to be solved for both. Hormone disrupters, environmental pollutants, global warming, and ozone disintegration are and will remain issues of public and international concern, as will ecosystems and their preservation. Studies should also reveal whether large-scale sequestering of carbon dioxide is practical and more about long-term patterns of climate change and shorter-term episodes, such as El Niño. Although precise earthquake prediction will remain but a goal, geoscientists should gain a greater understanding of the mechanics and behavior of quakes, and this knowledge should inform the earthquake engineering of buildings and other structures.