From Comic Book to Reality
James Kakalios is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. Kakalios's work focuses on amorphous semiconductors, granular materials and 1/f noise. Kakalios is also the author of "The Physics of Superheroes," which studies the fundamental physics of comic book superheroes.
Question: What are some comic book technologies that will actually come true in the near future?
Jim Kakalios: Well one of the things we won’t have are, say, teleporters. Whenever you hear the popular press about experiments involving quantum teleportation, what they’re really transmitting is information and not actual atoms, or people or anything like that. So that won’t be coming.
One thing that is coming is electrons that we use in our transistors and we grab hold of them with the electric charge that they have and pull them with voltages and electric fields. Every thing also has a built in magnetic field, actually every proton, every neutron – all matter has an intrinsic angular momentum or spin. And that for massive particles, that manifests in them having a little built in magnetic field as well.
Scientists are working on using that magnetic field in addition to the electric charge to manipulate the electrons. Since the magnetic field in quantum mechanics derives from a quantity called spin, these devices have been called, “spintronics” as opposed to the simple electronics. And if that comes to fruition, if it fulfills its promise, what you will have is integrated circuits and devices that do both data manipulation and data storage at the same time, in the same place. So believe it or not, the computer can get even smaller. And that might be coming pretty soon.
Another thing that I think might be coming is an analog of solar cells. Solar cells, another term for them is photovoltaics, from photo for light and voltaics to create a voltage. There are devices called thermo electrics. They take temperature differences and they create voltages. And when you have a solid state refrigerator that has no coolant, but say can cool, say a single bottle of wine. These devices use thermal electrics. Right now they’re not very efficient and so you could use them for these small little applications, but nothing large scale.
Scientists are working on making these devices better and improving their efficiency. There’s a lot of waste heat underneath the hood of your car that right now is just going off and warming up the atmosphere and does nothing as far as locomotion is concerned. But if these devices improve in their quality, we can use that waste heat, recapture some of that energy, use it to recharge the battery, say in your hybrid automobile. And so in the future, the cars may not fly, but they’ll get much better mileage.
The physicist and comic book enthusiast outlines technologies that were once imagined by science fiction writers that have now found social utility.