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.

Want a quick overview?

Read “Super Materials: Building the Impossible.”

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:

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.