Each day we inch closer to the next revelation in engineering. Advances in technology are changing how engineers think and work in big ways, whether we’re building skyscrapers or building molecules. Yes, we do mean building molecules— that technology and more are poised to break through some of the biggest boundaries in engineering in just the next few years.

Quantum Computers

For many people, the potential power of quantum computers is so inconceivable that it’s hard to imagine what we could even do with such technology. That’s not the case for many chemical and biochemical engineers, who are already enticed by the possibility of precisely designing molecules. Molecules are extremely difficult to model on a classical computer thanks to the complexities of its smallest components, but the nature of a molecule essentially is the nature of quantum computers.

Instead of operating in one of two states (manipulating bits that are either 0 or 1) like most computers, quantum computers aren’t nearly as limited; they encode information as qubits (quantum bits) which can exist in superposition, much like electrons. Qubits do in fact represent electrons (or protons, atoms, or photons), making it feasible for them to accurately and precisely model molecules. IBM researchers have managed to model a small molecule of three atoms with a seven qubit quantum computer, and we can expect to be able to model much larger and more complex molecules in the future.

With this modeling power, we can make significant breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals and clean energy in particular. More effective drugs could be synthesized, more efficient batteries and solar cells could be developed, and we could even create compounds to turn sunlight directly into liquid fuel. The possibilities are just as limitless as quantum computation itself.

VR

Virtual reality has been in production for years and is a readily available technology for the average consumer, given its relatively low price-point. While we’re enjoying VR video games, VR is expanding outside of the entertainment space and already has a foothold in a number of other sectors, including education and automotive. In fact, the automotive industries have been implementing VR for design purposes since as early as 2006.

What makes VR “new” is that we’re on the brink of introducing a whole new level of sophistication to VR technologies. Previously, using VR for large, complex engineering projects was near-impossible; much of first-wave consumer VR was rudimentary with cartoonish models, dizzyingly low frame rates, and limited immersive interaction. Things have changed dramatically for VR in just the past year. Varjo is developing the world’s first industrial-grade VR headset designed for professionals, which has resolution more than 20 times that of current consumer headsets. It also uses eye-tracking technology to determine where the viewer is looking, adjusting its high resolution image as needed without the viewer having to turn their head. Meanwhile, scientists from EPFL and ETH Zurich have created DextrES, an ultra-light haptic glove that enables users to “touch” virtual objects with their hands rather than using unwieldy motion controllers. We’re rapidly working toward VR that’s so precise it can be used by the construction, aerospace, and medical industries and beyond!

3D Metal Printing

3D printing is another example of incremental innovation becoming groundbreaking. Believe it or not, 3D printing is nearly 40 years old, but its implementation has been slow-growing. Even now, 3D printing is primarily used by artists and hobbyists for small-scale projects, but that may be about to change, thanks to 3D metal printing.

3D printing was previously limited to plastics, as printing with anything else was cost-prohibitive, but now the technology has been refined to the point where metal printing is much easier and cheaper. The printed results for metal parts are often better too; in 2017, researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory 3D-printed stainless steel parts twice as strong as traditionally made ones. In the same year, a Boston startup called Markforged released a 3D metal printer for under $100,000. While still outside the budget of your average household, this lowered price-point could open doors for manufacturers. Manufacturers would no longer need to hold large inventories, since new parts could be printed as needed, and large factories that mass produce metal parts could be replaced by smaller factories with more variety that are able to adapt to changing business demands.

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