Friday, July 19, 2013

What Will the Next "Thing" Be Made From?


Remember how “Plastics Make It Possible”, the famous early 1990’s mega marketing campaign that illustrated how much our lives benefit from plastics?  Then again, don’t forget “Cotton is the fabric of our lives”, and all the other slogans and campaigns in between.

But what about our lives tomorrow?  Will we still crave only natural materials swaddling our bodies?  Will everything come packaged in protective plastic (from food to brains to airplanes)? All to be nicely recycled in the blue box on the curb? 

Don’t bet on it. There is a revolution in new materials underway.

You know this is serious business when The President of the United States singles out the development of new materials as critical to the long term economic well-being of the nation. The Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) launched a few years ago was an attempt to fast track the development of these new materials. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced that $ 25 million would be spent on a new Advanced Materials Center of Excellence.

So what kind of new materials are we talking about? And how might they change our world? Here are a few examples:

·         Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, thinner than a sheet of paper and more conductive than copper. In short, it is the thinnest and strongest material in the world. The NYT reported that a sheet of Graphene stretched over a coffee cup could support the weight of a truck! According to research by the University of Bath, this material could accelerate internet speeds by a hundred times. Bloomberg reports it could unlock super energy efficient devices, revolutionize batteries, and create everything from bendable touchscreens to super light-weight cars and even synthetic blood.  (Did anybody else just get a chill reading that - blood?)


·         Researchers at MIT have identified materials which could allow for the un-wrinkling of what we wear. So, your pants could magically be able to reverse wrinkle. I wonder what the ironing lobby is thinking of this new invention (I am sure they have a lobby. Everyone does).

·         A new kind of wood composite has been patented in China. Made from wood powder and recycled plastics, it has far better strength and bending capacity than ordinary wood, and only a very small water absorption rate improves durability. There is hope for deforestation.

·         As recently as the mid-seventies, all passenger jets were made of aluminum and steel. In 1974, Airbus changed things with a composite rudder on its first plane. Today GE, the biggest jet engine maker, is building vast factories to make new wave engines made from ceramics and a new material made from titanium and aluminum which has been under development for over 20 years.


·         If you walk into some of the hotel lobbies outfitted with the new dynamic view glass, you might be able to notice that the glass darkens to block out the sun and heat. This is more energy efficient and may even eliminate the need for blinds. The glass is programmable and even has the ability to predict the sun’s angle based on GPS positioning.  The office fish bowl conference room can change to blackout mode in a flash.


·         And while we are on windows, The South Dakota State University’s Center for Advanced Photovoltaics is working on a solution where windows generate electricity to heat and cool the buildings in which they are installed.

·         The Asian Scientist reports that Chinese scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have developed a method to print electronic circuits on paper using liquid metal ink. A new wave of simple and low cost electronics, and even 3D functional devices, is around the corner. The Internet of Things (IeT) is likely to explode. If you are not familiar with IeT, here is a link:


·         The days of looking for charging cables for phones and tablets may be coming to an end. DuPont Building Innovations and Power Matters Alliance are working together to create a wireless charging solution which is integrated into the work tops of solid surfaces. So, place your phone on the counter, and its charging. DuPont believes wireless charging of this kind will be part of furnishings and furniture as well. There may yet be other uses for the La-Z-Boy.


·         Researchers from University of London received the Materials Science Venture Prize for a material which can be incorporated into toothpaste, dissolves in the mouth, and releases calcium and phosphate that form the tooth minerals, thus reducing the incidence of tooth decay.

·         Socks made of carbonized coffee offer unparalleled moisture wicking and can be printed on your own 3D printer.  But will my feet have that caffeine edge?


·         The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have made a new kind of flexible sensor material which could be incorporated into e-skin (electronic skin), cover prosthetics and allow patients to feel touch, humidity, and temperature.

·         University of Maryland researchers have developed a battery with tin-coated wood which is a thousand times thinner than paper, making it the longest lasting nano-battery available. 

·         Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have developed a special material assembled from thin, wrinkled nanotubes which will allow for real-time breath tests from smart phones and tablets. They believe that such breath tests can also be leveraged for testing for diabetes, lung cancer and other maladies by focusing on the detection of biomarkers for these specific diseases.

·         A special kind of paper developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology repels liquids, including water and oil. They used the “lotus” effect from the lotus plant to create this new paper and believe that this is a first step in a new generation of biomedical diagnostics and has the potential to revolutionize packaging.

·         North Dakota University researchers have developed a new way to embed chips in smart paper, which may be highly effective against counterfeiting. But what about hacking? Hacked your $100 bill lately?

·          A new generation of flexible materials will allow Morphees, the name given to a new generation of self-actuated flexible devices, which will change their form factor based on the specific application you launch. So, your phone may bend as you type in a password and change to a stress ball when you are having an anxious moment.  Shape shifting anyone?


·         Computerized fabrics that change color and even shape are being developed at the Department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University. The project is aptly called Karma Chameleon and Boy George gets another lease. The garments harness power from the human body and then use that to change their visual properties. The day when you charge your phone with your shirt, may not be far behind.


Most of our minds can’t begin to wrap around all this wonderful work being done at these fine research institutes, let alone fully envision the applications of such new materials.  We patiently await the next mass marketing campaign to inform us what the next new Thing is, and which we absolutely cannot do without (preferably after significant tests to ensure life and limb remain intact.  I wouldn’t want my e-skin short circuiting).

Our current era continues to expand on the uses for the 1959 creation of the microchip.  That’s over 50 years of mileage from one new material, albeit a pretty radical game changer.  Imagine the possibilities with this new array of materials.  What will they make possible?


  1. more on graphene:

  2. e-skin that lights up...