Scientists are constantly on the look out for lighter, stronger, and more energy-efficient materials. Here’s a glance at some materials that will change the way we build things in the future.
Graphene is extremely thin and strong.
What it is: Graphene is a substance made of pure carbon. The carbon is arranged in a honeycomb pattern in a one-atom thick sheet. Another way to think of graphene: Each time we write with a graphite pencil, we are basically making layers of graphene.
How it’s transformative:Graphene has been called a “miracle material” because it’s thin, strong, flexible, conducts electricity, and its nearly transparent. Its potential applications are practically limitless. Graphene researchers won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for developing the wonder-material and now you can even make it in your kitchen.
Suggested uses: Solar cells, touchscreens, liquid crystal displays, desalination technology, aerospace materials, more efficient transistors, chemical sensors that can detect explosives
A super water-proof material makes drops bounce.
What it is: A surface textured with extremely tiny cones repels water droplets. The super-hydrophobic surface, created by a team at Brookhaven Laboratory in New York, is unlike other water-resistant materials because it can stand up to conditions of extreme temperature, pressure, and humidity.
How it’s transformative: These surfaces not only don’t get wet, but would stay cleaner since the water droplets carry dirt with them as they roll off (this mimics the self-cleaning properties of nature). The material would be useful for preventing ice or algae build-up or even as an antibacterial coating.
Suggested uses: Coating boat hulls, car parts, and medical devices, car and plane windshields, steam turbine power generators
Aerographite is 75 times lighter than styrofoam.
What it is: Aerographite, created by researchers at the Hamburg University of Technology in 2012, is made from networks of hollow carbon tubes. It’s black in colour (because it absorbs light rays almost completely), stable at room temperature, and is able to conduct electricity. The material is really strong, but also bendable.
How it’s transformative: The material can be compressed into a space 95% its normal area and then pulled back to its original form without being damaged. The stress makes the material even stronger. This is unique since most lightweight materials can be compressed, but can’t withstand tension. The material can also withstand a lot of vibration, which means it can be used for aeroplanes and satellites.
Suggested uses: Lighter batteries for electric cars and bikes, more efficient water and air purification systems, aviation, and satellites.
An ultra-thin material provides protection against high-speed objects.
What it is: A super-thin material created by researchers at Rice University and MIT can stop a fast-moving projectile, such as a bullet, in its path. The material, made from alternating rubber and glassy layers that are each just 20 nanometers thick, is good at dispersing energy. After being pelted with tiny glass beads, the complex polyurethane material not only stopped the bullets, it also sealed them inside, making it appear as if no damage had been done.
How it’s transformative: When struck, the material melts into liquid to absorb the energy and then quickly hardens to close the entryway. “There’s no macroscopic damage,” project researcher Ned Thomas explained in a statement. “You can still see through it. This would be a great ballistic windshield material.”
Suggested uses: Protection for satellites against meteors and other space debris, stronger jet turbine-blades, and stronger, lighter armour for soldiers and police
Live bacteria is used to make self-healing concrete.
What it is: Concrete is a popular building material, but it’s vulnerable to cracks. Water and chloride from icing salt can seep into pre-existing fissures and make them larger. Overtime, this can become a dangerous (and expensive) problem. Self-healing concrete, developed by scientists at Delft University in the Netherlands, uses live bacteria — mixed into the concrete before it is poured — to seal up those fractures.
How it’s transformative: When water gets into the cracks, the bacteria is activated and produces a component in limestone called calcite that fills up the crack completely. Researchers are still conducting outdoor tests to see if the concrete can be put to real use.
Suggested uses: Sidewalks, building foundations, other architectural structures
A bone-like material that’s lighter than water, but stronger than some types of steel.
Jens Bauer at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology recently developed a honeycomb- structured material that is less dense than water, but as strong as some forms of steel.
“The novel lightweight construction materials resemble the framework structure of a half-timbered house with horizontal, vertical, and diagonal struts,” lead researcher Jens Bauer, said in a statement.
The researchers samples “contained 45 per cent to more than 90 per cent air, making them extremely lightweight while also withstanding more than 46,000 pounds per square inch of pressure,” according to Txchnologist.
How it’s transformative: Even though objects made from this material can only be manufactured in the micrometer-range right now, this is the first time scientists were able to produce a material that exceeds “the strength-to-weight ratio of all engineering materials, with a density below 1,000 kg/m3,” the authors wrote in a paper.
Suggested uses: Insulation, shock absorbers, filters in the chemical industry