Think technology, and we are easily bombarded with buzzwords like Digitalisation, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Robotics, Quantum Computing, Virtual and Augmented Reality, 5G, Nuclear, Electrification, and the like. Think sustainability, and recurring themes such as climate, energy, water, food, mobility, and built environment instantly surface. Yet a poorly discussed, easily misunderstood, and often taken for granted, but nevertheless the most crucial thread that binds new solutions to hard problems and re-defines nigh saturated technological fronts becomes clear — Materials.
We need new materials — to develop better energy capture and storage systems that power our electrification ambitions; to make increasingly smaller computing chips that drive our digital future; to build stronger and longer-lasting structures that help realise our sustainability goals. Enabling radically new battery chemistries, or breaking temperature limits for new processes to be made feasible, are just some of the examples as to why we so desperately need new materials. We look to materials to help define the next age for us, as they have done so throughout our history, alongside the driving power behind each age of industrial development.
But the road to realising a new material that represents mankind’s next technological leap forward has never been simple, nor has it been short. New materials require long gestation periods — from discovery, to characterisation of their properties, to acceptance, and finally towards promulgation and proliferation. Having experienced exactly such a cycle in my 13 years of work with transparent ceramics, I could easily attest to the arduousness of that journey, fraught with numerous roadblocks inimical to that innocent and almost naïve wish to create, apply and scale an advanced material.
Of course, we are living in a time where technology development is rapid and accelerating, and the same trend could be seen for Materials Science. The Bronze Age lasted about 1300 years, and the Iron Age about 600 years. Plastics have only been around for about a century, and we are now at the cusp of phasing them out. Silicon has barely turned 50, and already we are hungry for something newer.
Today, new contenders such as carbon, lithium, and hydrogen, have stepped up, each bearing promises to revolutionising energy, enabling renewables and net-zero, and more. And finding new materials is only going to get faster. In 2005, the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) was launched, developing and using complex artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques for “discovering, manufacturing, and deploying advanced materials twice as fast and at a fraction of the cost compared to traditional methods”. The approach here is to develop automated, rapid experimentation to expand material libraries, backed by strong computational methods to predict material structures and properties. This way, the discovery, testing, eliminating, and refinement of new materials, will be able to progress at a much faster rate than previously achievable.
If I could entertain a wild thought, perhaps the next age-defining material need not necessarily be identified by a certain element alone. Perhaps it doesn’t have to just possess properties independent of time and environment. Maybe, this material of the future is capable of having a memory, being trained, and even making decisions. That is what scientists at the Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials (I-FIM), hosted at the National University of Singapore, are going after. Co-directed by the Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, I-FIM endeavours to create a “library of designer materials” as the building blocks of FIMs, and through this develop a rulebook to predict FIM behaviour. In similar fashion to the MGI, I-FIM boasts a Materials Robotics Laboratory — “an automated experimentation lab, where training data will be collected and designed recipes will be synthesised and tested”.
2D Materials have often been the subject of great hype and promise, but have seen limited applications thus far since the discovery of graphene in 2004. Yet perhaps we could very well be past the nadir of its hype cycle, and are beginning to see calibrated and target approaches to using the material, leading to more practical, albeit less ground-breaking, but nevertheless meaningful outcomes. Via Separations is one such example, a start-up born in 2012 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). CEO Shreya Dave explained that the company was initially exploring graphene oxide membranes to “bring down the cost of desalination and improve access to clean water”, but they soon found out that “the cost of desalination doesn’t lie in the membrane materials”. With the ability to modulate pore sizes in graphene however, Via Separations has now managed to reapply their membranes to address energy requirements and associated emissions produced by thermal processes, which according to Dave, could reduce the energy used in industrial separations by about 90 percent. Via Separations has attracted 9 rounds of funding, totalling $55 million from 12 investors, and has been demonstrating how an advanced material like graphene is finding its way, slowly, but surely, into the global push for greater sustainability.
But we do not have to peer that deeply into that crystal ball. Already, we are seeing how new and advanced materials are discovered through marrying components of different properties together. And we know them quite fondly by the general name — Composites. These are, simply put, materials that comprise a combination of two or more constituents with varying physical or chemical properties, giving new properties that are not necessarily just something in between, but can even be intentionally tailored to be directional and non-linear. Today, while composites come in many different structures and chemistries, the most common one that still receives strong attention will be carbon-fibre reinforced plastics (CFRPs).
The beauty of working with composites is that there is nearly no end to the number of combinations they could have in terms of structures (both dispersed and matrix phases), material types, and therefore properties. In CFRPs alone, new resins are constantly being discovered, and new ways of turning seemingly valueless scrap material into strong carbon fibre threads are being developed. Even at the structural end, new ways of controlling fibre orientation with enhanced physical properties have surfaced. The overall interest in composites will continue to rise, driven by high and growing demand across the aerospace (including satellite components), defence and renewable energy markets. While the high cost of PAN-based carbon fibres remains a concern for rapid adoption of CFRPs, new opportunities in carbon fibre recycling, 3D-printable composites with optimised structures and reduced material wastage, and even structures that are made to last significantly longer, have surfaced.
ARRIS Composites has developed a patented Additive Molding™ process, which is an automated CFRP manufacturing technology with applications that cut across various industries from sportswear to defence and aerospace. 3D-aligned continuous fibre composite materials are “now possible within complex shapes where material composition can change within regions of a single part”. The optimisation of such structures has resulted in proven benefits across various components — aircraft brackets (made up to 75% lighter), electronics enclosures (improved drop resistance), and foot-wear plates (enhanced energy return). More recently, ARRIS, the U.S. Army and LIFT have launched a project to apply ARRIS’ Additive Molding™ technology and demonstrate “significant vehicle weight reductions via part consolidation, topology optimisation and a continuous carbon fibre composite structure”.
Boston Materials has developed a Z-axis oriented carbon fibre technology, which its CEO, Anvesh Gurijala says can give a “fifteen-fold increase in product lifespan and unlocking a five-fold reduction in Scope 3 emissions”. Having fibres oriented in this direction enables up to 30% greater interlaminar strength, with enhanced conductivity and mechanics. This enables composite part manufacturers to create “highly differentiated, energy-efficient products that have a low carbon footprint”. The applications of these strengthening films extend well into both aerospace and defence sectors, giving lighter and stronger composite armour panels and structures. To date, Boston Materials has raised a total of $26.8 million, with an addressable market of more than $450 billion for Z-axis carbon fibres.
Where it comes to technological advances, Material Science has come a long way in pushing the edge of the envelope, allowing the birth of new products and solutions. Be it next generation composites, energy storage devices, or even computing chips, materials will indubitably continue to play the role of an enabler, and help define the next age of industrial development. After all, it is the science where substance truly matters.