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Science Can Help Make Products Which Last Forever

– Contributed content –

Fullerene nanogears

Fullerene nanogears (NASA Ames Research Center)

3 Nov. 2018. Bad press surrounding product longevity is ubiquitous. Dozens of articles are written in left-leaning news outlets about how companies are trying to fleece customers by building fixed lifetimes into their products.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Apple iPhone. Although iPhones are expensive and could be made to last up to a decade, Apple made a public decision to limit their device’s lifespan to just a couple of years, or about the length of the average mobile phone contract.

Of course, for those who don’t like waste and corporate abuse, this is yet another example of the excesses of greed and capitalism. But is it that straightforward?

Not according to the Economist. The editorial staff there argues that what most people call planned obsolescence is, in fact, just the operation of human beings in a free society. Nobody, they say, is forcing consumers to buy these time-limited products: it’s just what people want. When the life of the product is at an end, then they are ready to buy the next one, and so the cycle continues. It’s the force of innovation, they say, that leads to these situations.

The argument that planned obsolescence is a negative force that harms consumers doesn’t really make sense. Plenty of device manufacturers make phones that will last for many years, including leading Apple rival Samsung. And yet Apple customers return to the brand year after year, because of the advantages that its products bring. It doesn’t seem to matter to the majority of consumers that their products tend not to last as long.

It’s also a big incentive to innovate. Apple knows that its customers will have to upgrade in the near future, and so it is forced to make sure that the next iteration of its devices is tempting. If it isn’t, then there is nothing to stop customers from going elsewhere.

Products lasting longer

But just as technology is driving certain companies in the electronics industry to shorten the lives of its products artificially, it’s helping other industries increase the longevity of theirs.

Perhaps the most obvious example right now is the car industry. Improvements in technology mean that today’s cars are now much older than at any time in history, with an average age of 11.5 years and more than 122,000 miles on the clock.

The managing director of the AAA, Mike Calkins, says that most cars built today will do more than a quarter of a million miles before being scrapped. If they’re looked after well, they can do longer.

Electric car maker Tesla is not taking vehicle longevity to the next level. Thanks to the fact that their cars have fewer moving parts, the company believes that drivers will get more than a million miles out of their vehicles. In short, Teslas are a car for life.

Technology and immortal products

In Tesla, we could be witnessing a new kind of immortality in consumer products. Internal wear and tear on their cars is so minor, thanks to the unique operation of the electric motor, that the car company predicts that servicing costs will be a fraction of those of internal combustion engines. The quality of batteries is improving too to the point where data now suggests that consumers will only experience a 10 per cent degradation in charge capacity over the first quarter million miles, and then negligible degradation after that. In effect, the component that analysts once believed would make electric vehicles uneconomical is now proving to have much greater longevity than expected.

In the consumer products space, longevity is already exceeding what most people thought was possible. Thanks to packaging ideas from CL Smith and others, even perishable products are not so perishable anymore. Plastics, for instance, already ensured that many products would not be damaged by corrosion, but new materials in the future will take this to the next level.

What about graphene? Graphene is a “wonder material” that is 200 times stronger than steel per unit weight, is flexible, transparent, and conducts electricity. It has more potential than practically anything else to change the way we think of products permanently.

Fully-fledged graphene products are still some time away. But companies such as Nike are already incorporating flecks of the material into their products. In the future, graphene will have all sorts of uses in a wide variety of products that will help them not only last longer but be stronger and faster too.

Smartphones are the first place many people will see the effective use of graphene. Gorilla Glass is already good compared to old phone screen glasses, but graphene will make cracked phone screens a thing of the past. Graphene is so strong that many believe that a true seamless graphene phone screen and cover will be practically impossible to break, negating the need for ugly phone cases and screen protectors.

Graphene also has the potential to revolutionize sports products. Things like tennis rackets and golf clubs must endure extreme forces while in use, making them cumbersome and prone to breakage. Graphene will not only help to reduce weight, but it has the potential to eliminate common weak points, giving equipment manufacturers more scope to customize the shape of their products. Combined with 3D printing, graphene may allow for the first truly personalized and ergonomic sports equipment, tailored to the individual athlete.

Graphene may also be the key to helping machinery and vehicles last longer too. Not only can it be used in the componentry, but it is also proving to be an effective lubricant. Regular oils last around 1,000 cycles between a steel ball and disc. Graphene-based oils, on the other hand, can continue more than 6.5 times as long, thanks to graphene’s two-dimensional structure.

Nanotechnology

The final frontier of material science is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is still a distant technology, more so than graphene, but it more than anything has the potential to boost product life beyond anything currently imaginable.

Nanotechnology is the branch of technology which deals with building materials atom by atom. It’s like Lego, just on the smallest scales that chemistry allows. Nanotechnology has the potential to transform every industry by allowing matter to be manipulated at the most basic level.

Nanotechnology will change consumer products beyond recognition. New chemistries will allow for the creation of stronger materials, and scientists will be able to create bespoke products that are chemically compatible with the tasks that they want them to achieve. Companies will eventually be able to determine the properties of their products at scales of less than one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair.

Already the global nanotechnology industry is thriving. Estimated at more than $50 billion by Scientific American, the global nanotechnology could reach more than $1 trillion in the next few years.

The good thing about the nanotech industry is that it is almost entirely unregulated, like the computer industry in the 1990s. Just like that industry, it has the capacity to provide new wealth to the world, changing the way we live our lives. The major worry is that nanotechnology products will be unsafe, although at present there is no evidence either way.

Because the application of nanotech could lead to the development of materials which never break down, some are concerned that this could make products harmful. There’s a risk, according to experts, that flecks of nanomaterials could get into the bloodstream and stay there forever, remaining impervious to the body’s cleaning mechanisms.

Immortal products that use nanotechnology could also end up cluttering the environment, especially if they became cheap to manufacture. Nanotech could become the new plastic waste, filling the oceans with debris and causing problems for human and marine wildlife health.

Nanotechnology could make the notion of sustainability obsolete, eliminating concerns about product life. There is nothing stopping scientists from developing new nanotechnologies that help to clean up the mess created by old nanotechnology products. Just as nanoengineering will allow products to be built from the single atom upwards, they will also allow the same process in reverse. Nanorobots could be sent to landfill with the ability to reduce hazardous plastic waste into harmless elementary particles.

Technology is a double-edged sword

It’s clear that technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is the driver of much of the planned obsolescence that we see in the electronics industry, but it is also the reason why products last longer already, and will almost certainly have the capacity to do so in the future.

Ultimately, the longevity of products will come down to consumer preferences. If people want products to last forever, then those are the products that they will buy. If technology eliminates the need to think sustainably, then consumers will likely revert to their regular behavior, needing something new all the time to keep them satisfied.

Whether products that last forever will be safe is an open question. But that’s clearly the potential of technology. Consumer products, packaging, and machinery will all benefit, possibly helping to reduce depreciation costs across the board.

Editor’s note: the opinions expressed in this post are the contributor’s and not those of Science & Enterprise.

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