Expanding on an article from Wired, SF novelist McCarthy (The Collapsium, 2000, etc.) asserts that the next breakthrough in materials science might be designer elements with properties programmable to whatever the customer requests.
The basis for this prediction is “quantum dots”: computer chips with microscopic domains that can mimic the chemical signature of specified atoms by varying the number of electrons they hold. The author describes the hardware and the physics behind the research and interviews several of the scientists working with quantum dots. As of this writing, several two-dimensional (“pancake”) elements have been created and arranged in a simplified periodic table. As one might have guessed, their properties lie in between those of the silicon of the chip and those of the element with which they share an electronic signature. In theory, manipulating the electronic properties of these elements will allow precise control over electrical conductivity, thermal insulation, transparency, magnetism, tensile strength, and all the other characteristics of familiar materials. McCarthy concedes that much of the work in this area at present depends on expensive and delicate devices that need cryogenic temperatures and high voltages to run at all. Integrating them into the suburban home will depend on fitting large numbers of programmable atoms into arrays that, at room temperature and low power, can substitute for current construction materials. The results could include a house able to regulate its own temperature, supply windows or lights wherever the inhabitants find them useful at a given moment, and generate sufficient energy for all normal activities—or a garment that can change color depending on the wearer's whim. McCarthy sometimes assumes more technical expertise than many readers are likely to have, but in compensation he effectively conveys the inherent gee-whiz character of his subject.
A fascinating glimpse of research that may in a few years find its way into our everyday lives.