Silicon. Composites. Titanium. Touch-sensitive glass. These and a host of other innovative materials have made possible today’s most imaginative products, from composite-hulled airplanes to cell phones that function like computers.
What will tomorrow’s breakthrough materials bring? Global experts are urging investors to watch three main trends in 2013: biomaterials, materials with new functionality, and materials for lightweight vehicles.
THE SECOND LIFE OF MUSHROOMS
Biologically made materials have dominated materials research for about a decade. For example, the multinational technology company 3M, known for adhesives, recently invested in a start-up that is producing alternatives for petrochemical foams using mycelium, or “mushroom roots,” as a self-assembling glue. The start-up is called Ecovative Design.
GLOBAL EXPERTS ARE URGING INVESTORS TO WATCH THREE MAIN TRENDS IN MATERIALS IN 2013: BIOMATERIALS, MATERIALS WITH NEW FUNCTIONALITY, AND MATERIALS FOR LIGHTWEIGHT VEHICLES.
“Ecovative’s business idea will enhance 3M’s footprint in sustainable polymer technologies,” said Stefan Gabriel, president of 3M New Ventures. “It is the kind of disruptive breakthrough technology that can be a game changer in various industries, including automotive, construction and architecture.”
Ecovative makes packaging called EcoCradle from mushroom spores. EcoCradles are used by a number of Fortune 500 clients, including Steelcase and Dell, as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly replacement for plastic packaging. “EcoCradle is grown from agricultural byproducts using substantially less energy than existing processes,” Ecovative Director Jerry Weinstein said. “It offers the performance of traditional foams and is home-compostable.”
PRODUCING POWER POPEYE’S WAY
Another biology-based material, in development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee (USA), uses proteins from spinach to create voltaic cells, an innovation that would make spinach-gulping cartoon character Popeye the Sailor proud.
“ECO-FRIENDLY HANDLING OF MATERIALS AND NEW MATERIAL CONCEPTS ARE IN THE FOCUS OF THE DEVELOPERS.”DR. SASCHA PETERS
CEO OF HAUTE INNOVATION
Plants transform sunlight into energy through a process known as photosynthesis. Although the hybrid solar cell based on the spinach protein is not as effective as conventional photovoltaic elements in producing energy – yet –the Vanderbilt researchers expect their voltaic cell to become commercially viable within three years.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Materials Science at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, produces high-performance ceramics that mimic the materials synthesis of sea shells and algae. This bio-mineralization process yields ceramic components for use in high- functional-density devices, including electronics and medical applications.
“Using bio-mineralization to produce high-performance ceramics adds new qualities to the material and is much eco-friendlier than conventionally produced materials,” explained Joachim Bill, a professor at the Institute for Materials Science in Stuttgart who has studied ceramics for decades.
Eco-responsibility is a major driver for many bio-materials research projects. Dr. Sascha Peters, CEO of Haute Innovation, a consulting firm for materials research, predicts that biopolymers – synthetic materials made from renewables that degrade biologically – will soon dominate materials research. “Driven by the finite nature of fossil fuel supply,” Peters said, “the consciousness for eco-friendly handling of materials and new material concepts are in the focus of the developers.”
But not everyone agrees that “bio” equals “earth-friendly.” Karsten Bleymehl, director, Library and Materials Research at Material Connection, an international consulting company that specializes in materials research, sees danger in this equation.
“The complete cycle of materials has to be regarded, not just production,” Bleymehl said. He sees more potential in packaging made from waste.
SMART SURFACES FOR A NEW LOOK
Equally important, Bleymehl said, is the second big trend in new materials: adding functionality to well-known materials to expand their possible applications.
One material with high potential for added functionality is concrete. Although valued for qualities that include pressure resistance and durability, concrete is also known for its inflexibility – until now. Today, flexible rolls of concrete are available from the US textile company Milliken, which purchased the original supplier, Concrete Canvas Ltd., when it was a start-up. The new product is a flexible fabric impregnated with cement. When exposed to moisture, the fabric hardens to form a thin, durable layer of concrete impervious to both water and fire.
“All you have to do is add water,” explained William Crawford, who co-invented the material with Peter Brewin when they were engineering students at the Royal College of Art in London. Lined with a plastic inner- layer that can be inflated with an electric fan to create the structure’s shape until the concrete hardens, the new material is used primarily for concrete buildings in the military sector. The shelter provides protection against shrapnel, blasts and small- arms fire.
The positive characteristics of concrete also inspired a new material genre named BlingCrete – concrete with retroreflecting surfaces, produced by glass microspheres embedded in the substrate material. The glass microspheres reflect incoming rays of light directly back at the light’s source, creating a three- dimensional illusion on two- dimensional surfaces.
Potential applications of BlingCrete include safety-related marking of danger spots in construction. It also can be used in the design of integrated guidance systems and novel surface components, including facades, floors and ceilings. The manufacturer, Hering International of Burbach near Siegen, Germany, recently received the DesignPlus Award from the German Design Council for its innovative material. The jury said it was particularly impressed with the concrete’s modulation ability.
MATERIALS RACE FOR LIGHTWEIGHT CARS
The third important trend, also driven by environmental consciousness, is the push for lightweight materials for automobile fabrication. While fiber-reinforced composites have been used in the bodies of sports and premium cars for many years, researchers are working to develop a wider range of light materials.
One promising new material is aluminum foam, which is extremely light, dampens sound, and absorbs kinetic energy in crashes. Joachim Baumeister of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (IFAM) in Bremen, Germany, invented it.
To produce the foam, a mixture of powdered aluminum and a foaming agent – usually titanium hydride – is first compacted and then expanded by heating the compact to its melting temperature. One of its first applications is in baggage nets for the Audi Q7, where the aluminum foam decelerates the forward movement of baggage during crashes.
In addition to car components, aluminum foam has potential to be used in many other manufactured objects. For example, mobile elevating work platforms and railway vehicles also benefit from the foam’s damping power.
“In applications where high rigidity and energy absorption are important, the use of the material usually makes sense,” Baumeister said. “A further characteristic of metal foam is its low thermal conductivity, so they are also great for insulation purposes.”
With processes like these that transform the properties of known elements and find new applications for organic substances, the science of materials is pushing the envelope of what is possible, opening the door to a world of product innovations.