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Material Sciences Breakthroughs

Material Sciences Breakthroughs

Introduction 

Material sciences is an interdisciplinary field concerned with the understanding and application of properties of matter. Material scientists study the connection between the underlying structure of a material, its properties, processing methods and performance in applications. There have been several recent advancements which have the potential to add value to our everyday lives, through the discovery of new materials, the creation of new materials and processes and improving what we currently know.

New Materials

Graphene

Since its discovery, Graphene has been dubbed the new ‘super-material’, causing a massive stir in the research and science world. It has been praised and glorified for the endless new applications and the power to supposedly change the world. Graphene is essentially a single, one atom thick layer of graphite – the soft, flaky material used in pencil lead. It’s an allotrope of carbon, which means they have the same atoms, but they’re arranged differently. For example, diamonds and graphite are both forms of carbon, but diamond is strong, while graphite is brittle, as a result of the way the carbon atoms are arranged.

The reason why graphene is considered to be so phenomenal is because despite its size being one atom thick, it’s known to be one of the strongest materials in the universe (so far). The tensile strength of graphene is 130 GPa (gigapascals), which is around 10 times stronger than steel. Additionally, it is very flexible, transparent, highly conductive and seems impermeable to most gases and liquids, which allows for numerous applications.

Applications of Graphene

  • Environmental sciences
  • Electronics – graphene is flexible and transparent, meaning smart phones and tablets could become even more durable
  • Wearable devices – made even more practical, such as hugging and moulding to limbs and bending to accommodate movement in joints
  • Biomedical research – graphene’s flexibility and tiny size provides many opportunities, such as small machines and sensors which could potentially move through the human body, analysing tissue or delivering drugs to specific use areas
  • Solar power and photovoltaics – since graphene is highly conductive and transparent, there is potential for application for solar cells
  • Graphene could be better at converting solar energy, as it can release multiple electrons for each photon that hits it (as opposed to silicon, which has been traditionally used, which only releases one electron). This could improve efficiency from 25% to 60% with graphene 
  • At this stage it is all still theoretical, and testing hasn't begun
  • Semiconductors – graphene could be used to increase the speed at which information travels. Semi-conductive polymers conduct electricity much faster when placed on top of a layer of graphene, rather than silicon
  • Water filtration – the tight bonds between atoms of graphene makes it impermeable for nearly all gasses and liquids, with water molecules being an exception. This makes it good for filtration, and purifying water of toxins.
  • Researchers have also found that oxidised graphene could draw in radioactive materials such as uranium and plutonium present in water, leaving it purified
  • Water scarcity affects more than a billion people worldwide and a new method of water purification would increase the amount of fresh water available
  • Spintronics or quantum computing: While graphene is not normally magnetic in its pure form, it is predicted that the edges of graphene sheets become magnetic when they have a zigzag arrangement of carbon atoms
  • These edge spins have potentially useful applications in quantum technologies and spintronics
  • Unlike electronics which measures tiny electric charges of electrons moving through electronic circuits, spintronics doesn’t rely on an electron’s charge, but on their fundamental quantum-mechanical property of ‘spin’. This spin generates its own magnetic fields, which means less energy is needed to generate a current

Theoretical material BETTER than graphene

Scientists and researchers have been working to create a new material made from a combination of elements such as silicon, boron and nitrogen, which will be superior in terms of size, flexibility, strength and cost. This theoretical material would be less expensive, more stable and better than graphene in theory.

State of the art theoretical computations have been conducted to demonstrate the feasibility of creating a one-atom thick, 2D material made from those elements. For example, a simulation has been conducted to see if the bonds between the elements would break or disintegrate in 1000°C heat, and so far it hasn’t. There could be far more applications beyond graphene if this were to be developed.

Uranium

While uranium isn’t a new discovery, scientists have discovered new reactions that uranium is capable of, which could offer solutions to today’s energy and waste dilemma, and possibilities in drug development.

There are hundreds of tonnes of depleted uranium around the world, which often causes issues when attempts to contain and clean up the waste are unsuccessful. Since it is so abundant, it would beneficial to come up with ways to reduce the volume of nuclear waste to more manageable portions, or even better, to devise useful and creative ways to utilise it.

This discovery could lead to the development of new medicines, plastics that are truly biodegradable and magnetic devices.

Synthetic spider silk

Spider silk is one of the most resilient materials found in nature, being stronger than steel and able to be stretched several times its length before it breaks. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have created a new synthetic material that demonstrates the same strength, stretchiness and energy-absorbing capacity, which is made up of 98% water. Additionally, it is cost efficient to create and is biodegradable.

This new material can potentially be used to improve bike helmets, parachutes, bulletproof jackets and other military clothing, or even airplane wings, and will have an advantage over other synthetic fibres like nylon. It is also biocompatible, meaning it is suitable for use in the body, and can be used for surgeries or stitches.

Eco and environmentally-friendly developments 

Technological developments in areas like material sciences and clean energy, help assure that the future will be based on eco-friendly materials and methods. This allows us to ensure we are supporting our increasingly energy intensive lives, as fossil fuels are eventually phased out.

Synthetic gas

Synthetic gas or ‘syngas’ is a fuel blend composed of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Syngas is vital for the production of synthetic fuels and various other chemicals. While syngas has been around for a fair number of years now, a team of researchers has developed a new process to create it, using just water and carbon dioxide, using a tiny number of copper atoms on a gold surface. The copper supports an electrochemical reaction at room temperature.

Designing a process and material that could control syngas composition would be a major advancement to reduce environment effects of the industrial processes normally used. With renewable energy and non-fossil fuels currently in demand, this technique could be useful as we move towards greater sustainable energy production.

Transforming seawater into hydrogen fuel

The current materials being used to create hydrogen fuels are relatively quite expensive and inefficient, and usually uses more energy and creates more carbon than it saves. Solar hydrogen splitting is something that many researchers have been working tirelessly on for years. But researchers have developed a new nanomaterial that can release hydrogen from seawater far more efficiently than current processes. While this process and technology is still in the early stages, if it were to be commercialised and scaled up, it would be highly beneficial.

Hydrogen fuel offers many benefits, including that the only emission is water vapour and hence is much better for the environment. Additionally, it has double the fuel economy of traditional gasoline, it is renewable and can be created in abundance. However, the process is also quite expensive, and we currently lack the existing infrastructure to support its development and use.

If facilities could be developed on a larger scale, it could generate a substantial amount of green energy, and eventually replace fossil fuels. This would be particularly beneficial for car manufacturers, such as Toyota and Honda, who are investing heavily in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to create emission free cars.

Longer-lasting batteries

Consumer electronic usage is increasing greatly, and we need to prepare for a boom in electronic use and as a result energy consumption (increase from 5% to 50%). The semiconductor-based systems inside all our gadgets require a constant stream of electricity, which is usually provided by lithium-ion batteries. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Cornell University have engineered a new magnetoelectric multiferroic material which allowed processors to work with 100 times less power.

This new material could change how electronic devices are built. The processors would run on far less energy than traditional processors. This new material displays electrical and magnetic properties at room temperature and requires significantly less energy to power up and keep running, as opposed to current devices that use semiconductors. The new material wouldn’t require a constant stream of electricity, but rather only quick bursts which results in the 100 times less energy being needed.

It still might be some time before these kinds of batteries hit the market, but when they do, it is inevitable that they will change the way we use and produce electronic devices.

New Processes and Technologies 

Quantum computing materials

Progress has been made towards the first large scale quantum computer, which could prevail over current computing in terms of solving complex problems. Traditional computers are built upon the concept of bits which can take form as either a 0 or 1. Quantum computing uses quantum bits (‘qubits’) instead, which can store much more information than just 0 or 1, through its many possible spins states. That is, quantum particles don’t follow the traditional rules of physics and can move forward/back in time, exist in two places at once, and ‘teleport’. This greater range of possibilities forms the basis for more complex computing that can solves issues that are currently impossible for classical computers in a timeframe that’s practical (taking up to billions of years).

There is still a long way to go to make it practical, with many issues to overcome, such as devising a way to store quantum information for long periods of time, which is challenging to preserve the quantum state of individual atoms. Scientists have found that copper iridate (a compound of copper, iridium and oxygen) might have the atomic geometry required to do this. It has a honeycomb shaped make-up, meaning the spin of the electrons never freeze, they just keep wobbling about without freezing to form a magnet. This allows for some unusual traits such as long-range entanglement where the quantum state of one particle is paired with another non-adjacent particle.

Another challenge to overcome is that quantum computers need to be kept cold (near absolute zero) to remain stable. It will be difficult to develop technology that can operate in normal room temperature, without requiring a cooling force.

Weaving materials at a molecular level

Scientists have taken the art of weaving into atomic and molecular level, weaving the first 3D covalent organic framework from helical organic threads. Weaving in chemistry has been unsuccessful until now and is completely unknown in biology. This gives powerful new ways to manipulate and configure matter with incredible precision, to achieve unique and desirable mechanical properties.

The significance of this is that scientists are able to influence the future of making materials with exceptional mechanical properties and dynamics. Woven structures could be made as nanoparticles or polymers, which means they can be fabricated into thin films and electronic devices.

3D printing breakthroughs

  • Printing with metal – many companies have successfully implemented metal 3D printing for industrial applications, which greatly improves the cost and time required to build or produce parts traditionally. E.g. Siemens 3D printed gas turbine blades, NASA 3D printed a rocket part. This will be particularly beneficial for creating strong and cost-efficient parts for the aerospace industry
  • 3D printed vaccines – engineers at MIT created a 3D printed vaccine that includes several immunisations within the one vaccination. The team was able to create 3D microparticles capable of holding vaccine doses, which can biodegrade at specific rates within the body e.g. giving a child one injection which disperses multiple doses of the vaccine over time, which could drastically improve immunisation rates for those without regular access to healthcare

Author(s)

Gabbie Anastasi
Gabbie Anastasi
John Colvin, Gabbie Anastasi

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