Materials Chemistry and Planet Earth
Materials chemistry is a popular and growing field of science and engineering across the developed world. This relatively young discipline (<50 years old) centers on creating new materials for our increasingly sophisticated societies and technologies. The areas of research and development included within the overarching umbrella of materials chemistry (or materials science) are electronics, optics, magnetics, solid state, crystals, thin films, polymers, and nanotechnology, among others.
To fully understand the potential impact of a new molecule, material, alloy, or assembly, having new properties or features, scientists and engineers must assess that new elements complete life cycle. They must understand its sources materials, how it is produced, with what energy or technology inputs, with what waste or corollary products, how it will be transported and used, to what effect, and how will it come to its end: reuse, recycling, alternate use, deconstruction, decomposition or waste? And, further, they must understand the impact, at all of those steps throughout the life cycle, on resources, human health and environmental consequence. To attain such knowledge, materials researchers will often measure the impact of component substances — at concentrations as low as a one-hundredth of a percent — on a range of human and environmental parameters. Their results are often published in self-reported product or material documentation, referred to as ‘first-party’ certification. Much more valuable to the consuming public, however, is third-party certification, in which an independent (and thus presumably neutral) entity tests such impacts and provides resultant documentation. Further layers of protection may be provided to the public by the testing and reporting of such agencies as the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, the American Society for Testing and Materials, and other industry organizations. The Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) has since 1965 provided complete chemical data on all new substances introduced via the planet’s technical and scientific literature.
Some of the most common human parameters against which a new substance is measured are: whether it is carcinogenic or flammable; can affect the human reproductive or endocrine systems, can cause cell mutations or birth defects; can cause irritation, sensitivity or penetrate the skin; or can be toxic over the short- or long-term. Environmental parameters typically measured include: a material’s volatile organic compounds (VOCs); its toxicity to algae, fish or other aquatic or soil organisms; its effect on water quality; whether it biodegrades or tends to accumulate in the environment or in animal tissues; its effect on climate change; and whether it contains heavy metals or other toxins or potential carcinogens. Only through careful screening of new substances through these parameters can materials scientists advance technology while responsibly preserving a sustainable planet Earth.
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