What are some of the key developments in material science and engineering?
We take a deep dive into today’s most exciting research, from assembling individual atoms to make new materials to creating more powerful and sustainable batteries for electric cars.
Atomic Level Design: Can We Assemble Individual Atoms to Make Brand New Materials?
As we approach a potentially transformative era of quantum computing, one challenge continues to capture the imagination of material scientists and engineers – ‘Can we ever successfully manipulate individual atoms to create new molecules in biology or crystallize structures for material science?’
The answer is that we are getting one step closer.
Researchers have demonstrated the potential of using a highly focused electron beam to manipulate the position of individual atoms, including their bonding location, thus paving the way for fabricating materials or devices atom by atom. The new technology uses a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) to manipulate individual atoms using magnetic lenses.
Of course, if we are one day lucky enough to fully master the ability to manipulate individual atoms, how will we know how to select which atomic elements to use and where to place them to make useful new materials?
Fortunately, progress is being made in this area as well.
Researchers are creating artificial intelligence tools that will allow material scientists and engineers to input desired material properties – and the program will calculate unique crystalline structures that meet the requirements.
New “Double” Polymer Joins the Lightweight, High-Strength Materials Club
Can you name some strong yet lightweight materials? If you suggested some kind of aluminum alloy or perhaps Kevlar, you’d be right on track.
But the baton may soon pass to a new category of super materials – described as two-dimensional polymer plastics – that promise to deliver the light weight that plastic compounds are known for combined with the high-strength of steel alloys.
The new patent-pending discovery – from the material science and chemistry research labs of MIT – is the first to create a two-dimension polymer sheet material (called a polyaramide) whose molecules are stacked into flat ‘disc-like’ structures. The result, dubbed “2DPA-1,” is a super-strong material – quite different from weaker conventional polymer plastics, which have spaghetti-like polymer chains.
2DPA-1 has other unique properties as well. It appears to have good vapor barrier properties as well, leading some to speculate that it could find use as an additive in paints and industrial coatings as well as serve as a strong, lightweight material for food storage bags.
New Bio-Based Materials Could Transform Clinical Medicine Therapies as well as Robotic Applications
Material scientists and engineers are also developing important new bio-based applications. One recent development that caught our attention is a technique for creating flexible, realistic artificial skin – but not for humans – instead, it’s designed for anthropomorphic robots.
To create it, researchers in Japan created the “skin” using processes that mimic the chemistry of human skin. They first created underlying connective tissue from a mixture of collagen and dermal fibroblast (just like the layer found under human skin). Then they coated this structure with keratinocytes (epidermal cells). The result is a convincing human-like skin that moves and repels liquids in a very natural-looking manner.
Meanwhile, research led by a team at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is developing artificial robot skin that features tactile sensing abilities.
This involves a multilayer approach. The bottom layer is made of hydrogel (that imitates human skin) with embedded sensors that can detect the direction of movement and pressure. It’s covered with a rubbery polymer surface layer to mimic human skin. To cap it off, the system uses an AI-based system to interpret the incoming data when the skin is touched or squeezed.
3D printing is also advancing its ability to create prosthetic implants.
Initially, many medical implant researchers focused on developing so-called 3D printed polymer-based “scaffold” structures that could be implanted into the human body to encourage correctly positioned regrowth and regeneration.
Today’s 3D bio-printing technology has advanced significantly further. For example, New York-based 3DBio Therapeutics has demonstrated, in a clinical trial of 11 patients, that it can successfully “print” a realistic prosthetic ear (created from the patient’s cell cultures) and successfully transplant it to the patient.
In time, entire prosthetic faces could be printed to help those who have been disfigured by accidents, burns, or surgeries, including cancer treatments.
Material scientists and biologists are also looking into other 3D bioprinting applications using living cells as “ink.” A collaboration between researchers investigating printing entirely with microbes alone (e.g. without plastic polymers) has successfully demonstrated printing unique 3D structures made entirely of microbes that can perform important tasks, such as releasing the anti-cancer drug azurin or trapping harmful BPA molecules. Ultimately the researchers speculate this microbe-based printing technology could supplement natural materials, such as wood, or be used to create bio-based sensors.
(We’ll have more on emerging sensor technology in a future article, so stay tuned.)
New Battery Formulations Emerging from the Laboratory are More Durable and Sustainable
One of the exciting aspects of material science is that discoveries in one area can lead to significant advances in another area.
Take lithium-ion batteries, for example. Over time, their performance degrades as chemical deposits from the electrolytes begin to build up a film on the electric anode of the battery. Researchers at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, CA, have come up with a new way to slow down this degradation – by coating the anodes with a protective layer of graphene during the production process. Another approach to solving the anode deterioration problem is to introduce a silicon-carbon composite material to protect the anode, which is the focus of research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).
As we all know, battery chemistry is a very hot topic right, as researchers around the world seek ways to make batteries that last longer (e.g., deliver more duty cycles), weigh less, are cheaper, and are more sustainable (e.g. use fewer rare minerals, such as cobalt, and can be recycled easily).
If researchers can develop new battery technologies, the results could be profound – in a good way. It could pave the way for widespread adoption of renewable energy sources and help make a bigger dent in the rising amount of carbon pollution we are sending into the atmosphere.
Already, some manufacturers of electric vehicles are looking at moving away from the current state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery technology to one based on lithium-iron-phosphate chemistry (known as LiFePO4 or LFP), which promises to deliver a significantly higher number of duty cycles at a lower cost while being less likely to overheat (due to thermal runaway) and cause fires.
There are several other exciting battery technologies on the drawing board (which we will touch on below), but first, a word of caution: as they say, the proof is in the pudding. In other words, until these batteries reach production and can prove themselves in real-world applications, we can’t be sure of their (pardon the pun) potential – at the moment, there is a lot of hype as investors swirl around promoting this or that technology for financial gain.
· Solid State Batteries
Several startup companies are developing so-called solid-state batteries (which eschew the need for a liquid electrolyte), including QuantumScape, Solid Power, SES AI Corporation, and Factorial Energy. Solid State battery technology promised to be lighter, with quicker charging and less chance of igniting due to overheating. When could we see solid-state batteries come to market? Toyota has announced it expects to launch a hybrid vehicle with a solid state battery in 2025, and Stellantis (maker of Chrysler and Fiat cars, among others) says its first vehicles will appear in 2026.
· Lithium-Sulfur (Li-S) Batteries
The idea of using battery chemistry comprised of Lithium and Sulfur garnered much media attention in the past few years. The idea is compelling from a sustainability point of view, as sulfur is one of the most common elements on earth, and momentum is growing to mine California’s troubled (and highly polluted) Salton Sea as a new source of lithium. However, it appears that this battery chemistry, which shows promise in small-scale lab demonstrations, has stalled in progressing to large-scale industrial production due to a problem known as the “polysulfides shuttle,” which can interrupt the charging cycle. Researchers are working on the problem, but time will tell if Li-S batteries will become a mainstream solution.
· Sodium-Ion Batteries (SIBs) and Potassium-Ion Batteries (PIBs)
Researchers at the Bristol Composites Institute have taken a different approach to developing battery chemistries – by selecting less toxic, more common elements (such as sodium or potassium) that can be recycled easily. As with Lithium-Ion batteries, the challenge is to create an electrode that does not degrade easily, and the researchers have zeroed in on a process known as “ice-templating” or “freeze-casting” to create a low-cost, carbon aerogel to serve as the electrode. The result, if commercially viable, could solve two of the most pressing issues in battery design: A) using low-cost, readily available battery chemicals, and B) facilitating simple recycling efforts.
Extracting Drinking Water from Air using Passive Solar Cells can Help Remote Locations Survive Drought
If you are a fan of nature programs, you may have seen documentaries that describe all the ways that plants and animals in desert climates can collect and retain precious supplies of water that condense on surfaces overnight.
We’re not sure if this was the inspiration for this new product concept or not, but engineers have taken an old idea and brought it into the modern era.
The product, called The SOURCE® Hydropanel, uses solar panels to power a closed, proprietary system that can collect upwards of 10 bottles of drinking water a day, with a claimed cost of 15 cents a liter on average.
While not cheap (at the moment), this concept could help bring drinking water to the increasingly growing regions that are facing severe drought conditions.
Micro-pollution from Nanoparticles and Vehicle Tires Become New Targets for Lab Research
While we can (and do!) celebrate the development of new technologies, we also have to be cognizant that there are risks involved in introducing new materials to the market.
Unfortunately, these risks often only become apparent later.
For example, plastics have revolutionized the world of manufacturing over the last two centuries, yet, as we wrote about in our recent article Nature Versus Plastic: a View from the Science Lab, microplastic pollution has become a serious worldwide environmental crisis worldwide, with airborne plastic pollution now reaching the furthest remote regions of the earth.
Recent research has identified motor vehicle tires and the deterioration of paved surfaces (due to heavy traffic) as a major source of toxic particle pollution, possibly producing far great amounts of particle pollution than motor vehicle engine exhaust.
To combat this type of pollution, the research lab Emissions Analytics has come up with a way to fingerprint the pollution caused by tires, allowing environmental regulators to “trace back” particles to their original manufacturers as part of an effort to determine which tire companies are causing the most damage.
The proliferation of nanoparticles, which have become a mainstay ingredient of many cosmetics, shampoos, and cleaning products, is also causing increased concern about the potential effects they may be having on the environment and human health.
Current waste treatment processes at municipal sewage treatment plants cannot filter these products out, so when consumers flush them down the sink or the toilet, they enter the ecosystem where they are free to travel – including entering the drinking water supply.
To combat this issue, the European Union is planning to ban Titanium dioxide nanoparticles (TiO2) in food products this fall, and they are investigating whether to limit the use of these nanoparticles in cosmetics based on these elements and compounds:
Sodium Styrene/Acrylates copolymer
Gold Thioethylamino Hyaluronic Acid
Acetyl heptapeptide-9 Colloidal gold
Acetyl tetrapeptide-17 Colloidal Platinum
Understanding and mitigating these issues will become a “growth area” for material scientists and engineers in the coming years, as they are called on to help solve these emerging problems which threaten our environment and human health.
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