gallium arsenide

How might permanent human life in space begin? I think the old rationales of “if you build it they will come” and “you need fantastically valuable macguffinite or bust” are too simplistic. Mining the platinum group metals is a perfectly decent idea, I think; the PGMs are extremely rare on Earth due to planetary geology, but comparatively plentiful in certain strains of asteroid, meaning we could perhaps not only replace but even vastly expand the supply of PGMs available. Indium, the rarest of all, has something like only a few dozen tonnes of total reserves on the entire planet, iirc.

PGMs and certain rare semimetals also found in asteroids presently are used as industrial chemical catalysts (platinum fuel cells, for example) and are important in the electronics industry as well; see gallium arsenide, and indium-phosphorous transistors, which are useful for packing a lot of processing power into small CPUs. If we had access to more of these metals, it seems reasonable to suspect that many useful new technologies and processes might spin out of it, too.

I think it’s reasonable to suspect that if we go to the asteroids to mine platinum, there will be people working the mines - for maintenance, teleoperation, oversight if not other things. Workers who live in space in the long term, if there arise large enough stations or “towns”, would want to be able to develop their own comprehensive industrial base so as to manufacture necessities ans goods on their own terms, without being tied to the mercy of expensive resupply. Even if humans don’t go, there could still be reason to develop a well rounded, distributed, and redundant larger infrastructure in space to keep the machinery maintained without lots of costly launches from Earth.

(Or, more cynically, the development of broader infrastructure could be expressed through the capitalist drive to externalize flaws in industrial society in the form of mass waste…)

Even before platinum mining, I think it’s reasonable that we could have a spaceborne economy organized around satellite-building and upkeep; smaller-scale plants on near-Earth asteroids could supply at least volatiles for satellite refueling, as well as perhaps less complex, lower grade metals for patching up satellites and stations

A World Beyond Silicon

by Michael Keller

Our world is now awash in data—as you read this, computers and sensors in your pocket, your home, the automobile outside and the power plant down the street are all generating reams of information.

Analysts say we’re just at the beginning of our ubiquitous-computing society. Our not-too-distant future will see an explosion of data production, from connected jet engines that create and share data about how they’re performing to wearable technologies that monitor your vital signs to tell you how well your body is performing.

Sensors and processors have already started to mediate a majority of elements that comprise the human experience from birth to death. Meanwhile, the infrastructure undergirding civilization is slowly becoming embedded with electronics while we navigate our social and working life with data-generating laptops, smartphones, apps and entertainment systems.

“Today, we have a humongous amount of data coming from video, text, graphics,” said Stanford University electrical engineer H.-S. Philip Wong during a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. “These are being processed in data centers but also on our bodies in electronics that have different requirements from traditional computers. And soon we’re going to have even more data needing processing from a trillion sensors that will be produced every day.”

Wong says this demand for a range of processors that can fit all the places where people will want to put them means we need to start thinking beyond silicon.

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Something New Grows on Trees: Biodegradable Chips for Electronics

It was just a couple of weeks ago when we featured nanocellulose, a natural supermaterial derived from plants that is getting ready for the spotlight. Researchers are looking at it for durable, transparent composites because of its strength. Others are investigating its use in applications from biocompatible implants and flexible displays and solar panels to better bioplastics, cosmetics and concrete.

Now we hear from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory that scientists have demonstrated a new product for the nanoscopic fibers of cellulose, a carbohydrate that gives structure to plant cell walls. Turning the material into a film, they’ve been able to produce high-performance computer chips made almost entirely of wood.

By replacing the semiconducting foundation of modern chips with biodegradable nanocellulose, electronics could become significantly less of an environmental burden when they are discarded.

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