Keeping tabs on the furious rate of technological development happening all around us is no easy task and the passing of another year provides a good excuse to reflect and take stock of the major milestones we've seen. So sit back in your power-generating rocking chair, crack yourself a self-chilling beverage and enjoy our take on the significant trends, technological victories and scientific bombshells of 2012.
3D printing switches on
While 3D printing hasn't exactly struck us like a bolt from the blue, 2012 was definitely a watershed year for the technology. Consumer access to 3D printers has boomed as systems have simultaneously dropped in price and gained in performance. Around $500 can now get you started in 3D printing and like "prosumer" cameras, there's added quality and performance to be had for handing out extra dollars as shown by Makerbot's fourth generation offering the Replicator 2 ... and there's more innovation in the pipe.
New avenues are also opening up to access the technology without having to buy a printer yourself. The notion of the 3D photo booth has recently taken root and Makerbot is exploring this space, along with established player in the 2D photo booth arena Fujifilm.
The possibilities (and realities) don't stop there though. 3D printing techniques are being used to help build houses, restore ancient historical treasures and manufacture bone scaffolding and jaw implants (biological tissues are next).
Things are set to get even more impressive though – self assembly could soon be the new 3D printing.
Curiosity gets the better of us
Despite the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, human exploration of the solar system continued apace in 2012 and no mission grabbed the public’s imagination more than NASA's Curiosity rover. After touching down on Mars on August 6, the 2,000 lb (907 kg) car-sized rover set about completing a number of firsts on the Red Planet.
After streaming a human voice from the surface of another planet for the first time and making the first foursquare check-in on another planet, Curiosity got down to some serious business by firing the first laser shot on Mars, uncovering an ancient stream bed, taking its first Martian soil and rock samples, and collecting weather and radiation data.
And with NASA’s associate administrator for science, John Grunsfeld, reported this month as saying Curiosity’s original two-year mission has been extended indefinitely, the rover could conceivably be operating as long as 55 years. So expect it to provide plenty of more interesting data from the Red Planet in 2013 and beyond.
Higgs Boson discovery
Perhaps the biggest story of the year in scientific circles was the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson – the elusive missing particle of the Standard Model. While any clear-cut eureka moment was of course tempered by the vast complexities of particle physics, the data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN that indicated a massive particle "consistent with" the predicted properties of the Higgs boson was received with excitement. Whether it will strengthen the Standard Model or turn it on its head is still a question to be answered.
Using technology to repair, revitalize and supplement the human body is gaining momentum as separate scientific disciplines begin to coalesce around the problem (i.e. we are getting really good at it). The examples of significant advances in this arena during 2013 are thick on the ground – the world’s first thought-controlled, fully implantable robotic arm arrived via Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, further progress was made on perfecting the bionic eye, bone implants became biodegradeable, hydrogel showed promise as a framework for growing new heart tissue and that most sci-fi of medical scenarios – tiny electronic implants capable of traveling in the bloodstream – came several steps closer to fruition, along with brain-powered fuel cells and non-surgical nerve repair and light-based thought control (which isn't as scary as it sounds ... yet).
In terms of simply making a difference to quality of life, perhaps the most remarkable medical story of 2013 centers on Richard Lee Norris, the recipient of the world's "most extensive full face transplant" at Maryland Medical Center back in March.
The term “wonder material” gets bandied around the media quite a bit, but if ever a material warranted the wonder tag, it is graphene. Since Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov first isolated flakes of graphene in 2004, the two-dimensional lattice of carbon atoms has racked up wondrous property after wondrous property. In 2012, we learned that superpermeability and piezoelectric could be added to the list that already includes thinnest known material, strongest material ever measured, best-known conductor of heat and electricity, stiffest known material and most ductile.
While graphene’s properties again made headlines, there were also plenty of examples of the material being put to good use. These included improving the corrosion resistance of copper and steel, featuring on the first true “all carbon” solar cell," being used in a new anode material that enables Li-ion batteries to charge and discharge ten times faster than those with regular graphite anodes, and being used to create flexible, transparent semiconductors.
But it wasn’t all graphene, all the time in 2012. Aerographite relegated metallic microlattice and aerogel to second and third places respectively on the table of lightest solid material ever made, while an old favorite also made news. Although it has been around for decades, being first commercially used in the early 1970s, Kevlar again caught our attention this year by finding its way into an unexpected place – the underwear drawer.
The U.S. Army’s Pelvic Protection System featured Kevlar along the inner thighs and over the groin to protect soldiers from IEDs, while U.S. Air Force Academy graduate Cameron Carter used a Kevlar-carbon matrix material to create Socrates socks that are designed never to get a hole, droop, or wear out.
2012 also presented a possible Kevlar replacement in the form of cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), with the Forest Products Laboratory of the US Forest Service opening a pilot plant for the production of CNC from wood byproducts. Stronger and stiffer than Kevlar or carbon fibers when prepared properly, and less than ten percent of the cost of those materials, CNCs, which are also transparent, have understandably attracted interest from the military as well as the automotive, aerospace, consumer products and medical industries.
NFC fails to communicate
Many expected 2012 to be a breakthrough year for near field communication (NFC) technology, with Google pushing its Google wallet (launched in September 2011) and major smartphone manufacturers including Samsung, LG, Motorola, Sony, Nokia and HTC getting onboard with the release of numerous NFC-packing devices. However, 2012 turned out to be another false start with end users failing to embrace the technology.
While mobile payments are seen as the NFC’s “killer app” and this was the main reason for its development, potential applications ranging from smart car keys to keyboards and gumball machines to business cards demonstrate the technology’s versatility. Samsung attempted to expand the potential uses of the technology further with its user programmable TecTiles NFC stickers. Despite this, even those already carrying around NFC capable devices in their pockets struggled to find places where they can actually make use of the technology in 2012.
Even Apple failed to see the relevance of NFC in 2012 and released the iPhone 5 without the technology onboard despite it being heavily tipped to be included. Some users obviously felt this was a mistake on Apple’s part, backing a Kickstarter campaign for the FloJack that brings NFC capabilities to iDevices to the tune of over US$96,000.
While the iPhone 5 shunned NFC, rumors abound that the technology will appear in an iPhone 5S expected in 2013. Maybe that could be the kick in the pants NFC needs to finally live up to its promise.
In MemoriamOn a final note, 2013 also saw the passing of some giants of human technological endeavor. Prominent among these names was the first man to set foot on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and iconic sci-fi author Ray Bradbury.