The Good Kind of Virus
The insights presented at last week’s Agora Financial Investment Symposium, were both scary and hopeful. The event, entitled “Fight or Flight,” featured gifted minds like John Mauldin, who put an exclamation point on the dire fiscal situation the country is in.
A proverb derived from ancient Greek drama asserts: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” And truly, the drama of the debt resolution impasse in D.C. (I’d rather not associate the place with George Washington’s good name at this time) reveals a particularly perverse madness.
The gross mismanagement of the national economy — which really boils down to the fatal hubris of thinking 300 million lives and trillions of economic decisions can be centrally managed at all — has put our continued prosperity at serious risk. We are hanging on in the midst of a hurricane of debt. We will not emerge without first enduring a lot of pain.
As a father of two young children, this situation is very worrisome, of course. From one generation to the next, we’ve been able to pass a better quality of life on to our children. For many who immigrated to the U.S., the radical move was undertaken so that the children could have a better life than was possible back home. This was certainly my family’s case when it escaped the clutches of a Marxist dictatorship, and for that, I am truly grateful to my folks.
But what will we do for our own kids? Will we give them a better life than what we have received from our parents? These are difficult questions to answer.
I’m an optimist, however. Although we are all being squeezed by this great recession in various ways, there are great reasons to have hope. The kinds of technologies that will grow us out of this mess are being pioneered and commercialized right now.
On this front, Patrick Cox wowed the audience at the symposium with thoughts on the meaning of the great technological advances of our time. Looking at technological progress from 20,000 feet up, he showed us how things are actually getting better even now.
In his signature style, Patrick shared insights from great economists and Enlightenment thinkers and presented information about an amazing plant-derived medical breakthrough. (As a side note, it isn’t very often in a presentation that two Hayeks, both Salma and Friedrich, challenge us to imagine what innovators will accomplish).
In the midst of the difficulties America currently faces, Patrick argued, we should not overlook the technological marvels that are sure to emerge.
The “nanotech revolution” is one particularly exciting example. The ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level is already changing the way we do nearly everything…
The importance of this technology is like discovery of fire. It changes everything.
Nanotech will facilitate dramatic innovation in medicine, energy, and electronics. For example: In one form, carbon is soft. It is known as graphite. It is usually inexpensive. It comes apart very easily.
When carbon atoms are bound together in a different way, they form diamond.
Diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance.
Nanotechnology has given us the ability to design new molecular structures not found in nature. In the past two decades, researchers have learned to assemble carbon atoms together into new shapes.
Two of these, carbon nanotubes and graphene sheets, are the strongest substances known.
They also have amazing properties that are only beginning to be used.
Nanotechnology is already making a big impact on the computer chip industry…
But there is another industry where nanotechnology is making big strides.
As I mentioned earlier, carbon nanotubes are one of the strongest substances known. Because of their distinctive electronic properties, they also have game-changing potential.
One of the big challenges is manipulating the tiny super tubes with care to produce useful products. Simply mixing together batches of carbon nanotubes isn’t enough. They need to be properly placed in order to work.
In the case of the MIT solar cells, nanotubes are used to selectively transport electrons.
However, the performance of solar cells that use carbon nanotubes is not as efficient. There is a lack control. The nanotubes tend to clump together.
Additionally, some nanotubes act as conductors. Others act as semiconductors. As conductors, nanotubes in a solar cell reduce the overall efficiency. They create a short in the circuit.
To solve this problem, MIT scientists used the M13 viruses. The virus has peptide proteins that bind to the nanotubes and keep them from clumping. This prevents short circuits. A single virus can hold many nanotubes in place.
In addition, the virus coats the nanotubes with titanium oxide. Titanium oxide is a dye component that absorbs light. This improves the electrical connection between the parts of the solar cell.
Even with this breakthrough, dye-sensitized solar cells aren’t the most efficient available.
But, using viruses to assemble the nanotubes boosts efficiency by a third. And, these cells are also much cheaper to manufacture.
With solar cells, being the best doesn’t mean being the most efficient in the physical sense. It means being the most efficient in the economic sense. The MIT discovery makes impregnating nanotubes in the solar cells a water-based, room-temperature process. It moves the ball in the right direction.
These MIT researchers are just the start. Nanotube technology has enormous potential. As technology investors, this is an area you will want to keep a close eye on.
Nanotubes have so many applications, not just in the solar field. Companies working towards improving this technology could surely take off… and could yield large returns for early movers.