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The coming age of super materials


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(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part I.)

You may not think its possible to conjure up some imaginary substance and create it on a computer, but that’s exactly what’s happening in the world of material science. Some of the newest materials getting scientists excited still only exist in theory. The next giant step will then be to actually start producing them.

Others already exist but are so new that their true range of application are still little more than conjecture in the minds of those developing them.

That said, we are about to embark on the golden age of material science with digitally modeled materials being fabricated and used in thousands of experimental applications before landing on their primary uses in the business arena.

Here are just a few showing earth-rattling potential:

  • Aerogels are a synthetic porous ultralight material created with a process that replaces the liquid component of a gel with gas. The result is solid matter, typically carbon, but with extremely low density and low thermal conductivity. Sometimes researchers refer to it as “frozen smoke.” Its current uses include insulation for skylights, chemical absorber for cleaning up spills, thickening agents in some paints and cosmetics, drug delivery agents, and water purification. But we are only scratching the surface of the thousands of other uses still to come.
  • Stanene (two-dimensional tin sheets) may be the next super material that competes with graphene. Even though it’s still only a theoretical substance that’s never actually been produced, it has lots of the thought leaders in material science world buzzing.
  • Shrilk is a material made from leftover shrimp shells and proteins derived from silk. Its dissolve-over-time biodegradable attributes will allow it to serve as sutures or scaffolds for growing new tissues that disappear when they are no longer needed.
  • Biomimetic nanomaterials are just now coming online. As an example, lotus leaves that are resistant to wetting and dirt due to their nanostructured surface are being used to develop waterproof paints and textiles.
  • Growable metals are still only in the backroom laboratory stage, but speculation has them being developed by adding metal salts to the irrigation water in plants, and using a secret process to sort the metals from the organic matter.
  • Spider silk is made from a biopolymer called an aquamelt, which can be spun at room temperature 1,000 times more efficiently than plastics. While spider silk itself will probably never be used, researchers are looking to make other materials that mimic spider silk's tricks.
  • Carbon nanotubes are members of the fullerene structural family. Being carbon-based like graphene, carbon nanotubes compete on many levels with graphene in areas such as strength, conductivity, and stiffness. Even though the first paper describing carbon nanotubes appeared in 1991, no one has yet cracked the code for producing long strands inexpensively.

Final Thoughts

Graphene is strong, stiff and extremely light. Those who immerse themselves in its properties have their mind racing with possibilities.

It could be used to create bulletproof skin that instantly transforms the body into “cloaking mode” where wearers suddenly go invisible whenever signs of trouble appear.

It could eventually replace steel and carbon composites in everything from aircraft, to bicycles, to ships, to armored vehicles in the military.

Using graphene, thinly layered across surface areas, with its high electrical conductivity, thinness and strength, it could lead to fast and efficient bioelectric sensory devices, with the ability to monitor everything from glucose levels, to hemoglobin levels, to cholesterol, and even DNA sequencing.

The possibilities seem endless.

But graphene is just one piece of a much larger puzzle being constructed in the coming era of super-materials. These materials are a result of a convergence of our ever-increasing connectedness, infinite computing, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and a few technologies that still defy adequate description.

If you think this is cutting edge stuff, better brace yourself for what comes next. The genie has left the bottle, and next-gen super materials are poised to be a key ingredient in virtually all forms of innovation from here on out.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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