From jet packs to cheap solar panels, the technology of the future needs a new generation of materials. Could they be discovered in a virtual lab?

Wonder stuff: Making every material you've never heard of

Welcome to the everything factory (Image: Bratislav Milenkovic)

SOME wonder technologies, such as the personal jetpack, were never really serious propositions. But researchers in the 1980s did confidently promise we would all soon be travelling in superfast levitating trains. The choke point was the need for a material that conducts electricity with zero resistance at room temperature. Without such a superconductor, the magnets that power the few maglev trains that do exist are incredibly power hungry.

It’s the same story with a host of other technologies: our inability to make the right materials is holding things up. Cheap, efficient solar panels require substances that can convert huge amounts of sunlight into electricity, rather than the measly quantities they manage now. Low-energy lightbulbs work well enough, but rely on rare and expensive elements. And don’t even mention batteries – the quest for better ones has been consuming research dollars …

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