The Super Materials Revolution
Thousands of years ago, humans discovered they could heat rocks to get metal, and it defined an epoch. Then we refined iron into steel, and it changed the course of civilization. In the last century, we turned petroleum into plastic, and we changed the world again. Whenever we create materials that redefine the capabilities of the objects we can make, we send the world down an entirely new path.
Today, scientists are developing, designing, building, and shaping new “super materials” that will eclipse the current physical limitations of things. Future everyday objects, aided by these super materials, will be stronger, more durable, more sustainable, and even self-producing. The latest revolution in materials science will transform the world yet again.
Strength in a pencil
The materials that will shape the future are already here. One astonishing example is graphene, derived from the same graphite in common pencils. A sheet just one atom thick, graphene is essentially two-dimensional, it weighs next to nothing, and yet it’s up to 300 times stronger than steel. Graphene dissipates heat more quickly than any other known material. It’s the only known substance that is completely impermeable by gas. And it’s one of the fastest, most efficient conductors of electricity ever discovered.
Graphene offers so much potential that the European Commission launched its largest-ever research initiative, Graphene Flagship, to bring the material into the mainstream within 10 years. Researchers have already developed an array of fascinating uses for graphene: microprocessors that flex and stretch like skin, a graphene-based gel that can repair cardiac tissue after a heart attack, even fabric that’s waterproof yet completely breathable and that can disperse or retain body heat depending on whether it’s worn with the graphene side in or out.
Lighter, stronger, more flexible
Amazing as graphene is, it’s not the only advanced material worth our wonder and excitement. Consider the possibilities of these future super materials:
- Carbon nanostructures artificially engineered at molecular scale are stronger than diamonds and can be made into materials that are both super light and super strong—ideal for building a new generation of cars, airplanes, and other vehicles that can travel farther on less fuel while better protecting passengers from crashes and equipment failure.
- Borophene is to the element boron as graphene is to carbon: a layer just one atom thick with extraordinary properties. Borophene is just as superconductive as graphene but even stronger and more flexible, and it’s transparent to boot. It’s a leading candidate for transformative uses, such as batteries that last longer, store more power, and recharge faster; next-gen wearables that comfortably move and bend with the body without losing functionality; and durable, ultra-thin touchscreens we could fold up and carry in our pockets.
- Liquid metals are supple, almost flowing, at room temperature but still conduct heat and electricity. They’re also stretchy and self-healing and can hold their shape even when bent, injected, spread like paint, or printed with a 3D printer. Imagine how much easier construction would be in disaster zones, rural areas in developing countries, or even outer space with wires that can stretch up to 10 times their original length and reattach themselves when severed. And once it’s possible to print with nonreactive liquid metal at nanoscale, disorders like Parkinson’s disease could be treated with electrical stimulation delivered by circuits printed directly on neurons in the brain.
- Engineered living materials have the structural properties of traditional materials but are made by living systems, which allows them to grow in situ, adapt to their environments, and self-repair. Researchers have already used microorganisms that digest food waste to create a biocompatible polymer that’s as good as animal skin for medical uses and can be produced faster. They’re also experimenting with houses that literally grow themselves, with fungi and other plants grafted onto reusable 3D-printed scaffolding or self-reproducing bricks excreted by bacteria that have been fed the ingredients for “biocement.”
- Hybrid living materials (HLMs) are 3D-printed objects coated with living cells that react in specific, predictable ways to materials embedded in the objects. Though still in their infancy, HLMs could eventually allow 3D printing of bandages, braces, and other biomedical devices that produce their own therapeutic compounds, such as painkillers or topical treatments.
- Biomaterials are engineered materials designed to perform in ways that mimic organic ones. Scientists have already tapped nature’s inspiration to develop antimicrobial surfaces that destroy bacteria by emulating dragonfly wings, slime-like nanobots that can assemble and reproduce themselves, and artificial leaves that can “photosynthesize” a common gas currently made from fossil fuels out of nothing more than carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight.
Designing the future, one molecule at a time
As research efforts in materials science advance, there’s no predicting what else we may discover. The Materials Genome Initiative is a multi-agency U.S. government project designed to help American institutions discover, develop, and deploy advanced materials at lower cost and bring them to market in less time. One central part of the initiative is a database attempting to map the hundreds of millions of different combinations of elements on the periodic table so that scientists can use artificial intelligence to predict what properties those combinations will have. As the database grows, scientists can draw on that data to determine how best to combine elements to create new super materials with specific desired properties.
We will start to see super materials in common use as they become easier to produce. Imagine 3D printers that can create smart devices on demand, with battery power literally baked in. Or clothing that resists dirt and damage and that wear so well it looks and performs like new for years, reducing chemical and energy use for laundry and dry cleaning while eliminating some of the billions of dollars of cost and waste associated with today’s fashion industry. Or homes that can grow themselves whenever and wherever they’re needed.
For millennia, humanity built things with bone, wood, metal, and other materials both expensive to obtain and difficult to work with. The invention of plastic freed much of humanity from the limitations of material shortages and made a new world of life-enhancing products affordable to the masses.
Just as plastics changed our behavior as consumers and shaped our culture, super materials will shape our world anew. These materials have the potential to make civilization safer, healthier, less wasteful, and more sustainable, improving quality of life for even more people. We’re limited only by how creative we are in making use of them.