5 Future Materials that put the Jetsons to Shame
Technology is a crazy thing.
In the late 1800's people were claiming "all that will ever be invented has been invented." In the 1960s, room-sized computers were cutting edge. Despite the lack of flying cars, the 21st century has technology that is flat out miraculous. Let's face it; an Ipad could only be considered witchcraft when our grandparents were born.
Luckily for our generation and our children we are discovering more and more about how our world fundamentally works. There is no sign of a slow down in technological progress. We seem to be on the verge of a whole new revolution of commercial products because of recent developments in material sciences. In case you weren't informed on these new advances, Cydro is here to help.
While only number 5 on the list, "graphene" can still tout considerable attributes, such as:
- Harder than diamond
- Thinnest structure ever obtained (similar to Kevlar in its 2D structure)
- 40x (or 300x, depending on the source) stronger than steel
- Incredibly light, transparent, bendable
- Superconductor of electricity
- Can be mixed with other substances to balloon the number of applications
Why is it so strong? Well, like I mentioned, it has the 2D structure of Kevlar that chemists would recognize as an sp2 bond. Also contributing to its strength is its arrangement of elemental carbon into a repeating geometric structure (like diamond). Theoretically, it can be made into infinite chains of this structure like a plastic polymer that we are all very familiar with. Crudely put, it is a cross between Kevlar, plastic polymers, and diamond (some chemist somewhere is upset that I said that).
Why is it only number 5 on the list? It has one large limitation. We had already known since the 60's that graphene could theoretically exist. However, it wasn't found in nature, and we couldn't find a way to make it. Graphene eluded scientists until its accidental production by Andrew Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2004 (they would later win the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics and $1.5 million U.S. dollars for this accident). Graphene production soon became a hot research topic, and a world-wide race began to find an efficient way to make it. It is such a hot topic that the United Kingdom recently spent $50 million euros to develop the technology.
The limitation, however, is that we still don't know how to make large sheets of it. The graphene we do produce is typically mono-layer and has a length on the order of micrometers. This is useful for small high speed transistors, but graphene has not fulfilled its role as a super-material yet because we can't find an effective way to make it.
Perhaps the wildest idea to manufacture graphene is a nanofactory. A nanofactory is exactly what it sounds like: a nanoscale factory that is composed of an assembly of only a few atoms.
#4 E-paper and E-textiles
We know that tablets and phones are becoming excessively thin. Progress in these electronic areas are becoming unprecedentedly accessible to inventors and tinkerers across the globe. It seems that the next natural progression of these electronic display technologies is to become embedded in paper and clothes.
Electronic paper was primitively developed as early as the 1970s by Xerox. However, it has drawn little public attention and has had limited commercial use until recent advances in technology.
A lightweight, thin digital screen has recently been created by an Israeli company named MagInk. Right now, it is still limited as high resolution digital tile product. MagInk's display technology can be used for billboards and other flat surfaces, and is seen by many as a precursor to fully commercial electronic paper.
E-paper would contribute to the information revolution already occurring. Some readers value the physical aspects of a book or newspaper. E-paper could balance the advantages of downloading books and news like a tablet but still keep the physical appeal of old-fashioned books, magazines, and newspapers.
E-textiles, while far from fashionable, have seen promising developments over the last few years. Gaming applications have pioneered the field, ranging from lightweight laser tag to an advanced Mario-themed playground tag game. T-shirts have already been created for the open market that respond to sound and light changes that would be common at a concert or sporting event. Other applications have been suggested such as tracking workers or lightweight clothes that perform simple communications.
It seems that the only thing limiting e-textiles is fashion and funding. Ideally, one would be able to fit a full computer into an outfit for cheap. While this can already kind of be done, the majority of researchers believe it would be way too expensive and clunky to be practical. Although this goal might not be practical now, we know that we have only scratched the surface for e-textile applications.
One of the first things you learn in a physics or science class is that light of different wavelengths corresponds to different forms of electromagnetic radiation. A short wavelength in the visible spectrum is blue, and a long wavelength would be red (which also corresponds to less energy). Lower energy, longer wavelengths of light correspond with infrared, microwave, and radio emission while higher energy, shorter wavelengths of light correspond with ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray emission. Metamaterials do funny things to different wavelengths of light, and it soon was proposed that invisibility cloaks could exist in both Harry Potter novels, Lord of the Rings, and real life. How? We can arrange the materials so they bend light (and now sound) around an object. Also, like in the picture to the right, they can bend light in the opposite direction that light normally travels.
In fact, invisibility cloaks have already been created with this stuff. Before you go out trying to buy one, it's not the invisibility cloak you might imagine. When this article was written, effective invisibility cloaks have been created in the microwave and infrared regions of light as well as for sound waves. That means that if your home microwave could see, you could become invisible to it. Infrared is slightly more applicable, because it would disguise you from thermal vision goggles. However, these invisibility cloaks are still very small and are imperfect.
The race is now on to find a metamaterial arrangement that disguises things from visible light. Very small (micrometer, nanometer, millimeter sized) and fuzzy cloaks have been created. However, most of the research is no more than a decade old. The promising future of metamaterials is why it is #3 on this list.
#2 Carbon Nanotubes
A carbon nanotube is graphene's more practical cousin. Although chemically graphene and carbon nanotubes are very similar, the tube-structure of carbon nanotubes give it completely different properties and applications. Right now, carbon nanotubes can be made into crude bundles that are strong, relatively cheap to produce, and large enough to be used in daily objects. These crude bundles have already found use in sea vessels, super-strong composite materials, wind turbines, sports gear, bicycle parts, tips for atomic microscopes, and the list goes on.
Like I said before, with the exception of atomic microscopes, these assemblies of nanotubes are just crude bundles. We know that if we can organize these nanotubes into certain geometric structures or integrate them with proven materials like Kevlar then they will become even stronger. On a theoretical basis, we think we can construct with carbon nanotubes:
- Bullet-proof and Stab-proof clothing
- A space elevator (Brad Edwards wrote a book on this idea)
- Nano-sized electrical wires
- Paper-thin batteries
- Nano-sized machines (and radio antennas)
- New touch screens
- Radar absorbing materials, like on stealth aircraft
Just to name a few. Look forward to seeing these incredible applications coming to fruition in the near future. Like most of the materials on this list, a majority of the research has been done in the last 10 years or so.
Aerogel holds a place near and dear to my heart, and I have some on my own. That might have influenced me to make it number one on the list, or it might not have. In any case, this stuff is wild (and for the most part non-toxic). It is 90% air, and it is produced by supercritically drying. In the end, you have a transparent or opaque material that exhibits some very remarkable properties that you can visibly see with the pictures I included. It also holds 15 entries in the Guinness Book of World records, more than any other material.
In a granular version, it is used in windows and skylights to block heat and sound while still permitting light to pass through. Aerogel windows have an insulating value a few times better than a normal window. These high tech windows serve to keep a building cool during the summer and warm in the winter, and also serve to lower energy costs. NASA used it to collect particles in space on the outside of a spacecraft (it was soft enough for debris to embed itself in the panels), but the aerogel panels were able to survive the intense heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. Aerogel might soon become a component of military armor, tires, and advanced batteries.
The full potential of aerogel is far from being realized. There are different forms of aerogels; namely, silica, carbon, and metallic. Silica is the most famous because it is cheap to produce and very transparent. All types of aerogels are finding new creative uses, and some are being crossed with fibers to create aerogel mats. The aerogel mats, as one might expect, are incredible insulators that could be used in all types of industry. Typically polyurethane foam has been the insulator of choice. Fiber-reinforced aerogel is posed to completely replace PU foam if costs of production keep falling. It seems that aerogel might soon become a household name.