The world of innovation | Dr Atta ur Rehman

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The CPEC and knowledge | Dr Atta ur Rahman

Imagine that you are driving a car and you have an accident – the car is damaged. However you need not worry. The car is made of a ‘memory alloy’ so the bent material has the remarkable ability to magically repair itself – the dent disappears as the material restores itself to its original shape. What about the spoilt paint? No worries. The car has been covered with self- healing paint which when scratched can heal itself. Is this fiction? Believe it or not, such materials are now available.

A new world of exciting and innovative materials has been opened during the last decade. They items can ‘morph’– that is change their shape in response to electric currents or magnetic fields. They can even serve as powerful bullet-proof ‘living’ exo-skeletons which can be worn by Robo-Cop type soldiers during combat. These special suits, when connected to the neural systems of soldiers, can react promptly to verbal commands. This is opening up new possibilities in the field of ‘communication clothing’ manufacturing and many smart fabrics are now being created.

Researchers at Iowa State University have used photovoltaic textiles to develop a tie made of solar cells that will charge a mobile phone. Similarly, Bluetooth iJackets have been developed by a company, Zegna Sport. These will allow the wearer of the jacket to listen to an iPod and use a cell phone simultaneously through a controller embedded in the sleeve. Such intelligent clothing is strong, water proof and smart.

Other exciting new materials that have been developed are e-textiles that have a large number of designs stored in them which can be changed by pressing a button. Ebb textiles that slowly change their colour within an hour or so have also been developed. This means you can go to a party wearing one colour and come back wearing another.

Now, making yourself invisible if you are covered by a special type of fabric is also possible. ‘Harry Potter’s disappearing cloak’ has therefore become a reality. These ‘metamaterials’ have the ability to bend the rays of light so that the wearer of the material becomes invisible. This may be compared to water flowing through a stream. The flowing water comes across a stone, collides with it and then goes round it. This is similar to what light experiences when it comes into contact with an object coated with metamaterial. The metamaterial bends the light waves without any reflection or absorption and is now being used by cloak submarines and tanks.

New alloys being employed in aircrafts can change their shapes in response to electrical signals triggered by stress. They then return to their original shape when the stress is removed. The Smart Memory Alloys are also ‘noise cloaked’ which means they absorb any noise and therefore become useful in the development of silent stealth helicopters and ground vehicles.

These materials have tiny nano-machines incorporated into their structures. Under the CHAP (Compact Hybrid Actuator Program) initiative, carbon nano-tubes that are 600 times stronger than steel and ultra-thin films made from composite materials are being employed to produce surface skins of spacecrafts. These provide enormous strength, reduce aircraft body weight and self-repair if damaged.

Now imagine that the army chief of Pakistan is having a confidential conversation with the prime minister. The room has been recently scanned for any external bugging devices and has been declared safe. However there is a small harmless looking ‘fly’ sitting on the wall that has not been detected by the scanners. It is actually not a fly but a small “insect drone” developed by the US defence agency DARPA that can be controlled by the foreign embassy several miles away. In a small room in the basement of that embassy sits a lady with headphones and a screen that records all that goes on between our PM and the army chief and transmits all the information to their spy agency abroad. Such insect drones are made of special metals that make them virtually undetectable as they are “stealth protected”. A British film Eye in the Sky was made in 2015 based on such insect drones.

Now imagine that you are the pilot of the latest fighter aircraft that had been bought at a huge cost. You are in a dogfight with the enemy aircraft and confident that you can blow it out of the sky with your superior fighting capabilities. Suddenly you find that your controls are dead. What went wrong? You did not know that ‘contaminated chips’ were secretly built into your electronic control systems which deactivated your machine through a simple external radio signal. The enemy is aware of what signals to send (information received from the country from where you had purchased the aircraft) and so all your weapons can become totally useless. This is a worrying scenario for many countries when buying aircrafts and submarines. In view of the special and highly complex materials used, contaminated chips are virtually undetectable.

Can we make paper which is stronger than iron? The answer is yes. Researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have prepared a special ‘nano-paper’ which is so strong that it is bulletproof. The paper is made of tightly woven nano size (one millionth of a millimeter in thickness) cellulose fibres. Cellulose is the main constituent of cotton– about 90 percent – and of wood.

The materials described above are earning the companies responsible for discovering and marketing them, billions of dollars each year. About 50 percent of the research and development expenditure in the US is made by the US defence agencies such as NASA, US Air Force, DARPA, Office of naval research and the ministry of defence.

It is important for our armed forces to set aside at least 10 percent of their respective budgets to cutting edge research in fields such as discovering and developing new materials, genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, smart weapons etc. These researches need to be out-sourced to our leading research centres which need to be given additional high quality manpower, equipment and research funds so that they can contribute to further strengthening our armed forces.

Unfortunately most of the heads of our armed forces have, in the past, lacked the strategic vision to realise that they need to be self-reliant in these innovative technologies. If they fail to do so now, they will always be at the mercy of other countries. Pakistan needs to develop world class research centres focusing on such materials.

The first national centre on nanotechnology has recently been constructed at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences by Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Foundation of Chemistry – courtesy of Aziz Ebrahim Jamal. It needs to be supported by the present government so that it can be transformed into a world class centre of excellence in nano-materials.