From matter to advanced materials

© SGI 2014

Paving the way to a better future

Everything is made of materials

It was a hot summer evening. Max and Lily were lounging in their office. Max was surfing online and Lily was reading a novel. In a moment of inspiration, Lily closed her book.

“Look around you” she encouraged Max from the comfort of her leather desk chair. “How many different materials can you recognise?” Max raised his eyebrow and yawned. “Seriously!” she said.

Max got up making a silly face and started counting: “Well, there is wood, metal, wool, stone…”

“Which of those are processed and which are raw?” she asked.

“Well, it depends on the definition! The leather you’re sitting on is processed. The wood of your desk is too but it is less processed than paper. But all of them have somehow been through processing. We are not sitting in the woods!” Max replied.

He sat down looked at her and asked her what she had in mind that made their surrounding stuff so interesting.

“It’s something I read... I am just wondering what life would be without materials” Lily replied in a dreamer’s voice.

advanced materials are behind everyday life applications

“You’d better wonder what life would be without advanced materials” he replied, took out of his pocket his new cell phone, took off the battery and showed off the memory card.  “Do you see it? One Terabyte of storage, in a chip smaller than a pea. It stores more than 1000 hours of high resolution video. And also, look at this” he took the battery off and waved it in front of her: “It harvests energy either from the sun or from motion and it lasts for weeks. I can’t remember the last time my battery ran out”.

Lily nodded and also pointed out the advanced materials sometimes found in the human body: from contact lenses to stents and artificial limbs. And she also mentioned, kind of enthusiastically, that her sun lotion contained nanoparticles. Tiny particles, 10.000 times thinner than a human hair could protect over a broader UV range than the traditional sunscreens.

Max, on the other hand, was more interested in the advanced materials that brought maximum efficiency in computers, automobiles, cell phones and solar panels. Lily was interested in solar cells too, as a renewable source of energy. She was always interested in green technologies. They kept talking and talking, almost competing in who would add more advanced materials in the conversation.

“You know what would be nice?” Max said “To map all these advanced materials that have re-shaped our world and made it faster, stronger, cheaper and more efficient”.

“And also healthier and more sustainable,” Lily added.

“We could go on a trip around Europe and see the technologies based on advanced materials that revolutionised our life,” he said, reopened his laptop screen and started typing frantically, looking for potential destinations.

“But wait, how would you define an advanced material?” Lily asked.

Which materials can bear the title of "aDvanced"?

“You know, super materials; materials with an extremely high performance regarding one property” Max replied.

“Such as?” Lily insisted.

“Ultra hard materials… or superconducting materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance. Or the ones who dislike water and strongly repel it, the superhydrophobic ones. Or the nanomaterials you said previously; the ones inside your sun lotion: nanoparticles and also, nanosheets, nanotubes, nanowires he said.

“How about the ones imitating nature? Humans have always imitated nature to create their technologies. From studying birds to enable human flight, to structural colouring that allowed us to get rid of environmentally harmful dyes and bleaches” Lily continued.

“Sure, biomimicry is in” Max agreed and resumed typing.

“And also, exotic materials, like shape memory alloys; you know, materials that can remember a particular shape and reveal it when needed” Lily added quickly.

“And those as well I like those” Max muttered and then said enthusiastically: “It is on! Europe, here we come!”  

Lily stared at him, as he was checking them in online. “That was fast” she said.