Life in Nano

Actually, Nanette is doing really well. Great job, wonderful boyfriend and tonight they are having a huge housewarming party with all their friends in their new lovely condo.
When asked what she does for a living, Nanette usually says that she is a gold digger. And it's not far from the truth. Nanette is a consultant with I-goo, the Belgian based market leader within re-composition. The company has developed a series of microorganisms that can decompose complex and toxic chemicals into simpler, harmless and recyclable substances. I-goo's microorganisms can also extract rare and precious metals from electronic scraps.
Nanette's job is to visit old dumps to check if the scraps there hold sufficient amounts of potentially valuable materials to justify a reclaim process. If so, she will negotiate with the local authorities for the rights to reclaim the area.

What Nanette especially likes about the job is that she can make a difference as far as the environment is concerned, while making good money at the same time. Any toxic waste area, a huge heavy-metal contaminated site, or an old dump loaded with electronic scrap is a potential threat to the environment. But re-composition technologies have turned them into veritable gold mines. The extraction of the world's last reserves of raw materials such as gold, platinum and other precious metals has grown extremely costly, the process of reclaiming them from old machines has become far more profitable - even if the amounts of precious metals used in former times in computer chips, screens, gauges, etc. is indeed very limited.

Admittedly, I-goo's technology is somewhat controversial, and not everybody is happy about it. The method was developed by Craig Venter, the American scientist who also decoded the human genome and subsequently moved forward to develop entirely new types of life. Venter's starting point was the simplest known living organism from which he systematically removed one gene at a time until he arrived at the smallest possible genetic material necessary to support a living organism.
That genetic code was sufficiently simple for Venter to synthesize complete artificial DNA by joining together the individual molecules.
Once they were able to control the genes, Venter and the scientists that came after him, could start tailoring entirely new organisms for very specific purposes - one of the first was a microorganism that can turn sludge into hydrogen, which can then be used in the power supply systems.

The Technology Is Alive

The process is called “re-composition”. Nanette's company, I-goo has specialized in breaking down complex substances and composite materials - other companies work in the opposite direction, offering microorganisms that compose highly specialized materials from only a few simple elements.
Most new materials have been developed by combining biotechnology and nano-technology where the precision of the structures in question are measured in millionth of millimeters.
For instance, research has created “smart” materials that contain microscopic sensors and computer components as well as carbon fibers that are as light as a feather but stronger than steel. We have materials that can regenerate and repair themselves or change character depending on the light, temperature or load to which they are exposed.
These advanced materials are built from scratch, one molecule at a time. Rather than using an extremely precise machine assembling the molecules mechanically, it has proven much more efficient to develop small organisms - like bacteria - that can process the materials and produce exactly what's needen. You might say that these highly technological materials are “grown” in labs.

Compared to old-fashioned mechanical technologies, the major difference is that the “living” technologies are self-reproducing.
It is a very practical feature, but also risky. Many people fear that microorganisms will invade areas where they can do damage - but cannot be controlled.
Just like animals and plants can be attacked by rot, microorganisms might accidentally encroach on computers, machines or construction equipment gradually turning everything into an indeterminable gray mass.

Nanette has had these discussions innumerous times. When somebody tells her about their worries, she usually shows them a short video where I-goo's president, Jaan Schmadt explains how their microorganisms have been designed to only start reproducing if immerged in a special enzyme solution in the controlled environment of a lab.
As an additional precautionary measure, I-goo has developed a series of materials that are harmless to the environment, but which will instantaneously kill the organisms should they escape from the controlled environment. But - as Nanette usually adds - they have never yet needed to resort to these measures.

Changing The Looks Of Your Car Just Like That

Obviously, there is a risk, but on the other hand, using nano-materials gives us a lot of benefits. Ultra-light cars, for example - Nanette's company car weighs about 300 kg - and it is actually a pretty big car.
When Nanette was a child, her parents would drive a vehicle called a SUV, a absurdly over-sized tank of a car - weighing about 3 tons - running on gasoline. Today, we laugh at it, but that is how things were in the oil-age: Huge, heavy and extremely inefficient.

Driving a car is a bit of a luxury, but you can cover quite a long distance on a tank-full of bio-fuel or hydrogen. Road taxing does mean that you have to chose your route and timing carefully to avoid the rush-hours when taxes peak.
Nanette's car is neat and comfortable, and above all it is super-flexible. Basically, the car is nothing but a flat plate with four wheels - almost like a skateboard. Fuel cells have been built into the plate producing electricity for each of the four electric motors that power the wheels.
The entire top of the car can be changed in less than ten minutes. During the working week, when Nanette drives around to do surveys and go to meetings, she will load all her equipment into a slightly boring-looking, very practical car, but when the weekend comes, she will usually change the car into the sportscar outfit that she paid for herself. Last summer, when she and her boyfriend went on vacation to Norway, they rented a top with amble room for all their luggage.
The first time she tried changing the body of the car, she was amazed how easy it was.
Her sportscar outfit consists of ten very thin plates that are hinged together. The plates weigh 2-3 kg each, except for the doors which are a bit heavier. In the old days, when most cars were made from steel or aluminum, they were a lot heavier than todays' carbon fiber construction.
The carbon shell is what gives the body strength and stiffness. It is not much thicker than foil. On the outside it is coated with a film of electronic circuits containing thousands of sensors that enable the car's computer to keep track of the traffic and road conditions.
The film also acts as a display - one of the reasons that we have been seeing a lot of radical and strange car design during the past 4-5 years. On most new cars the entire bodywork is one huge video display. Head- and tail-lights as such are no longer needed.
The traffic laws state the minimum amount of light that a car must give off and they also define the limits for how sensational and mobile the displays on the bodywork can be. As long as you observe these basic restrictions, you can design whatever patterns, colors, messages for other people on the streets you desire.

It has certainly made life on the road more colorful, but occasionally also slightly disturbing, like the other morning when a young guy overtook Nanette on the highway in a car that looked like it was exploding. It was probably not quite within the limits of the law, but it is nevertheless one of the most popular downloads for body displays at the moment.
Nanette's designs are not quite up to that standard. Her only download is a poetic program that adjusts her car's display to the weather and makes its body glow when the night falls.

A Tough Nail - From Shining Diamonds

Today, Nanette is primarily concerned with tonight's party. She decided what to wear a long time ago: A skirt she bought in Hamburg last month woven from spider's silk and inlaid with threads of light conducting fiber that can glow in all the colors of the rainbow. Tonight, she wants it to glow in colors of light green and burnt orange to match the design that they currently have in their new condo.
The skirt was a bit expensive, but spider's silk is a fabulous material. Ultra light, elastic and extremely strong - actually it was first developed for use in bulletproof vests. The spider genes have been inserted in goats, and the protein is extracted from the milk - which was a way of overcoming the problem of having to work with the sticky web from real spiders.
Nanette had her nails done a while ago. It wasn't cheap, but then she won't have to worry about them for a month at least. The “nano-nail” process includes several layers. First a thin layer of particles that can change color and even be charged to emit a bit of light. Then comes a layer of diamond crystal that prevents the nails from splitting and the “varnish” from scratching.
At work, Nanette prefers to keep her varnish transparent and neutral, but whenever she wants to have a special color or wants the crystal to shine in particular patterns, she puts her nails into a small charger. This is also where she activates the light effect, but unfortunately, it needs to be recharged every 4-5 hours.
Lots of teenage girls have started using make-up that can change color and emit light just like the nano-nails, but Nanette thinks that's overdoing it. Also, rumor has it that some of the nano-particles in the make-up are so tiny that they can be absorbed by the skin and become accumulated in the body - and she is worried that might be a health hazard.

Designed For Constant Change

Nanette's boyfriend is David. They both take a keen interest in the design of their new condo. Throughout, they have focused on flexibility. They both get tired of looking at the same things after a short while. Life is constantly changing, and nobody knows what you may want or need in only a few months.
Most of their furniture comes from I-Qea's “flowing furniture” line, which you can change and alter beyond recognition easily and at acceptable prices. Lamp shields, door handles and other fittings, arm-rests, chairs and table legs … more or less everything that has been fitted onto the frame of each piece of furniture can be changed and rebuilt - just like they were made from LEGO bricks.

If you want to, you can even design the pieces yourself. You simply download a program with the basic modules. After that, you can change the shape and color until you have exactly what you want. The program makes sure that the parts you design have the right measurements and can be fitted just as easily as if you had bought them ready-made from the store. The program also monitors the stability and usability of the parts and points out if they are inappropriate - then it is up to you to decide if you want to take its advise or if you want to create something completely out of the ordinary.
When you have finished designing the individual parts, you send it to the closest 3D print store - where they have a machine that can print 3D objects.
There is a 7-11 with a 3D printer just around the corner from Nanette's and David's condo, and they can usually pick up their new parts after just a couple of hours. They can also return their old parts for re-composition in the store and get their deposit fee back.

The principles of the 3D printer are exactly like those of ab old-fashioned ink-jet paper printer. A small nozzle sprays droplets of particles onto a surface according to the instructions on the drawing in the computer. Instead of ink, the 3D printer uses various kinds of powder. When the printer has completed a specified layer of powder, it is left to harden for a while after which the next layer is added and so the process continues until the object has the desired structure and design.
The 3D printer is still an expensive piece of equipment, but prices are rapidly dropping and the general assumption is that in only a few years, most households will have their own 3D printer. That definitely will make a huge change in our shopping habits and to the manufacturers and sellers of shoes, jewelry, clothes, etc.

Like in most modern apartments, there are only few real lamps in Nanette's and David's condo. Most of the light comes from the walls, ceilings or from doors coated with the same materials that are used for making the huge displays on the car bodies.
Actually, anything can be shown on the video coating. There's no reason to use every available inch - rather you can show just a few pretty pictures, much like the old-fashioned paintings. But the moment you choose to, it can be used as a wall size movie screen, as a huge videophone, or as a means to creating a visual bridge to another room.
David's mother lives in Israel, but they spend a lot of time together in the sense that they simply keep the living room video links open. That way, they do not feel obliged to sit and have long conversations, it is more like they happen to sit in either end of the room and can move around and just talk whenever it is relevant or they feel like it.
Nanette enjoys having the display tuned in to a web camera placed somewhere spectacular. It is like turning the wall into a huge window to the world: a view of Manhattan, over the Alps or overlooking Mars from the space shuttle.

The subscription that allows Nanette and David continuous access to printing new I-Qea elements includes the right to download matching colors and patterns for the background lighting. But on special occasions, such as tonight, Nanette and David will spend hours designing new lavish colors and programming the most beautiful sceneries - it is almost like doing the production design for a film, creating a wonderful setting for a wonderful night.

Nanette can't wait to push the “on” button just before she opens the doors to let her guests in and to hear them marvel: Gosh, it's gorgeous! Did you really do all the designs yourselves?

Text: Peter Hesseldahl