OPINION

Scientists in Singapore have developed a phase shifting substance that could change with way with insulate... everything

Scientific discoveries to inspire the next generation. Picture: Shutterstock.
Scientific discoveries to inspire the next generation. Picture: Shutterstock.

When kids at school are looking at their subject choices for their senior years, they will often ask a science teacher how they can make money from science.

The teacher normally gives them the speech about passion and desire and doing good for all mankind. It's at this part that the kids slowly start meandering over to the economics class signup with the promise of riches and world domination.

There are some famous cases of great inventions yielding nothing for the inventors. John Walker invented matches in 1824. He refused to patent his invention as he was worried about the safety of the flame.

Doug Engelbart created the first mouse using a pair of wheels underneath. The patent was granted in 1970 but Xerox modified it to use a ball and were granted a separate patent. Ron Klein invented the magnetic strip on the back of credit cards but failed to patent the idea. Tim Berners-Lee is known as the inventor of the world wide web, but he released the protocol to the world for free.

Every so often though along comes a scientific breakthrough that has the possibility to deliver untold riches to the creators.

Scientists in Singapore have developed a phase shifting substance that seems so good it sounds nothing short of magical hocus-pocus. It allows you to keep the heat out of your house and the heat in. That is not a typo.

Scientists in Singapore have developed a phase shifting substance that seems so good it sounds nothing short of magical hocus-pocus.

We love our houses with large windows but unfortunately the windows in an average house account for as much as 60 per cent of the total energy loss from a building.

In hot temperatures, windows heat up from the outside and radiate thermal energy into the building. Conversely, when it is cold outside, windows are warmed up from the inside and they radiate heat to the outside.

An ideal window would be one that could turn the radiative cooling effect on or off all by itself entirely dependent upon the temperature - that does sound like hocus-pocus.

Vanadium dioxide is a compound that changes from an insulator to a conductor making it perfect for a coating on a window. The minor issue is that this happens at 68 degrees Celsius. Great if you have your house on Venus, but not relevant here on earth.

Scientists have doped the compound with tungsten, though, and the phase shift drops down to more reasonable temperatures in the mid-20s.

There is no need for electricity or moving parts. The properties of the doped compound simply change according to the temperature. Now we have a compound that can be coated on the outside of a window to keep a house cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

It doesn't need to stop at windows though. Experiments have been conducted on rooftops where a roof is both an insulator and conductor. Why stop at buildings?

What about a jacket coated with this compound to keep you warm or cool depending on the outside temperature?

Cars, tents, even items in space where temperature variations are more extreme as you don't have the insulating effect of our atmosphere.

More development will be needed to commercialise this product but once that occurs, I can see some researchers finally able to cash in on science. Teachers - tell that story to your potential students!

I hope all the readers of Tech Talk have a very Merry Christmas and if you are bored, download the latest episode of "Tech Talk with Mathew Dickerson" and catch up on more tech news.

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and host of the Tech Talk podcast.
This story When breakthroughs sound more like magic than science first appeared on The Canberra Times.