The purpose of this series of articles is to highlight the main themes of both pure physics and technology. Starting from quantum mechanics, we will end up talking about energy.
Technology has made great strides in recent years. It is running at an impressive pace, and keeping up with it is not easy. Think of smartphones with the widespread of telecommunications, from 4G through 5G. Fiber optics, a simple glass structure, has made it possible to have very high-speed wired internet in our homes at affordable prices by using the emission of simple quanta of light: photons.
Not only that.
The Internet of Things (IoT) and the Industry 4.0 allow us to make our systems smarter, controlling them remotely with ultra-efficient wireless technologies to optimize our functions in both a domestic and industrial vision. The advent of artificial intelligence (AI)and the forthcoming quantum computers will be able to solve several science-related questions in the field of relativistic quantum mechanics, in chemistry and biology, and in the study of signals received from the universe – trying to answer the following question: Are we alone in the universe? But above all, why are we ‘forced’ to stay on earth and find it difficult to ‘simply’ leave and visit other ‘nearby’ planets belonging to our solar system? As you know, it takes enormous energies to get out of the atmosphere, and it takes a long time to reach nearby areas (like the Moon). Have we been punished? The mere fact of the existence of the speed of light and that it is impossible to reach it is indeed a punishment.
Everything revolves around quantum mechanics.
If you just think about quantum computers, which we will see in detail, or about the basic electronics with transistors and integrated circuits which, assembled appropriately in accordance with the laws of electrical engineering, allow our smartphones and wearables to work, but also think about all the electronics of our increasingly connected and more and more electric cars.
The purpose of this series of articles is to highlight the main themes (in my opinion) of both pure physics and technology. Starting from quantum mechanics, we will end up talking about energy.
At the end of each article, you will find a number of references, not too many, just some articles and books to go deeper into the subject. Obviously, in some cases, a high level of physical and mathematical knowledge is required, but I have tried to simplify and give everyone the opportunity to approach quantum physics and the different aspects of technology. Some technical knowledge, as you will notice, needs to be laid out.
I fell in love with electronics at the age of 12, when I first opened a valve television and then built a simple RC circuit (engineers will understand what I’m talking about). From then on, I have enjoyed every minute of the adventure. After my engineering studies, my other passion, physics, completed my scientific-technical journey along which I have met scientists and engineers from many countries and had the opportunity to discuss various topics. Both the knowledge of science and technology, and both the vision of a scientist and an engineer, or vice versa, have allowed me to see things from a research perspective (Why are we bombarded by gravitational waves?), but also from an engineering perspective (How can we detect gravitational waves?).
With this series, I invite you to take a ride in my time machine and go through different stages to dive into physics and technology.
Are you ready? Are you sitting comfortably? The car is a DeLorean but, trust me, interior LEDs, LCD screens and a voice will explain all the details. And I forgot to mention that it doesn’t have parking sensors.
We’ll start with quantum mechanics. Why quantum mechanics? The best description we have of the nature of the particles that make up matter is described by this still misunderstood science. The Holy Grail of anything material is quantum mechanics.
We will then see how quantum computers are created and explain relativity, Einstein’s theory, which has changed and is changing physics with the detection of gravitational waves and future space travel. Is time travel possible? Why did we go to the Moon? AI will lead us along the path to detect the existence of other planets. AI will be the new Einstein. So, we will talk about AI from various aspects, including the industrial one.
After this broad overview mainly focused on physics, we will turn to technology in the field of telecommunications and, in particular, electric vehicles, microelectronics, and energy. We will apply the concepts of quantum mechanics to analyze what technology has been able to achieve in a macroscopic view.
With the rise of cloud computing, increased adoption of AI and greater use of Big Data driven by the IoT, data communication layers have never been faster, more numerous, and telecommunications have never been as engaged as they are now in both hardware and software challenges, requiring ever more efficient electronics (think 5G and the upcoming 6G).
One issue that will affect us all is energy. There is a lot of energy around us, free energy or open-source energy as I like to call it, just applying physics to harvest significant amounts of electricity for every application to power or recharge various electronic systems. Physicists are trying to discover the scientific meaning of all this energy that affects us every day; engineers want to harvest it, to be able to power their devices in a green way. We want our devices to be battery free. What are we waiting for, then? How do smart grids make energy management efficient?
For several years now, the need for energy efficiency in distribution systems, together with the large-scale integration of renewable energy sources, has increased the demand for new technologies driven by the advent of new materials. Power electronics is the key to addressing many efficiency challenges. The advent of new microelectronics to support high transmission speeds with 5G and fast charging will see the involvement of new wide bandgap semiconductors such as Gallium Nitride (GaN) and Silicon Carbide (SiC). GaN and SiC will see widespread use in areas such as electric mobility, 5G, audio and the entire powertrain sector. Technological evolution is accelerating its applications, and silicon will soon leave the high-power domain.
Power devices will improve efficiency and performance in automotive and energy-saving applications, as well as in all high-voltage industrial applications. Robust, efficient, and cost-effective power devices with high power density play a key role in enabling global economies to effectively reduce carbon emissions. Climate change is driving the use alternative energy sources, closely followed by vehicle electrification. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the demand for electronic devices such as PCs, tablets, mobile phones and servers to convert energy more efficiently. This trend will continue with the launch of new technologies such as 5G devices and the whole IoT. Managing energy conversion and consumption also remains essential for businesses to reduce costs. All this is happening on a planet where there will be more and more inhabitants, more electronic devices, less resources, land devastated by climate change, more waste. Technological progress is the only weapon to drive the recovery and the future of humanity.
A piece of good news related to the coronavirus pandemic is that the crisis seems to be accelerating the transition from fossil-fuel-based energy sources to renewable ones. As the energy ecosystem takes a green turn, the pandemic could accelerate this process. Economically developed countries are implementing more ambitious climate policies and increasing carbon taxes, focusing on the green turn to stimulate economic recovery. Growing sales of electric, hybrid and hydrogen vehicles will also dampen demand for oil.
In conclusion, we will take a historical overview to understand the differences between the past and the near future. Are we ready for the next technology? What role should education play?
Wait, it’s not over yet.
I will take you on a journey into a parallel fantasy world where you will meet the four scientists who marked an era: Einstein, Maxwell, Newton, and Tesla. In an imaginary encounter, they will be confronted with contemporary technologies and express their reactions and thoughts on how our lives have evolved thanks to their inventions.
This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.