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What is the most important single factor in the development of civilisation? is it economics? is it politics? Science? Or is the answer to be found in a complex interaction between global megatrends such as globalisation, urbanisation and technological development? To the British materials scientist Mark Miodownik, the answer lies within another, often disregarded field: our materials.
In addition to being a researcher of metallurgy and biomechanics, Miodownik is also a writer, a keen science populariser, and television host of the BBC’s popular science programmes How it Works and The Genius of Invention. Miodownik is obsessed with materials, and besides studying them in the lab, he also tries to understand their cultural and social significance. he examines their influence on the world we are building around us.
We interviewed Miodownik at the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology, KEA, in connection with the opening of their new materials library, Material Design Lab. The Material Design Lab contains a large collection of basic materials, a laboratory where materials are tested and developed, and a library with a comprehensive digital database and 1500 accessible samples of physical materials. it is established to allow users – be they students, engineers, or designers – a more direct and sensory-based understanding of the materials they are working with. As it is, the sensuous plays an important role in Miodownik’s relationship with materials.
“What you can see when you visit these kinds of libraries”, Miodownik says and points to the rows of shelves with suspended materials, “is that you can’t nail materials down to their physical properties – how tough, durable or refractory they are – and understand them fully. Our senses play a huge role in what materials we choose to surround ourselves with”.
Miodownik’s own interest in materials started when he, as a teenager on his way to school, was stabbed in the back with a razor blade by a stranger. for young Miodownik, his unpleasant experience was overshadowed by his fascination that such a small object could easily cut through several layers of clothing and skin. The incident set off an obsession with the material world that has been with him ever since. According to Miodownik, there is a kind of interaction between the potential of materials and human ambitions, which is the driving force behind development and innovation within everything from textile design to architecture and construction.
This account of the close connection between materials and human creativity is a leitmotif in Miodownik’s latest book, Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World. in this book, he highlights a number of materials that have had a crucial influence on the structure of the modern world. Among the selected materials, we find steel, paper, plastic, concrete, glass, graphite, and porcelain. Each of these has an interesting story that illuminates the tight connection between material and human development all through history.
“I think that materials are an expression of who we are. first of all they satisfy some of our basic needs – clothes to warm ourselves and buildings to provide shelter. As soon as these basic needs are covered, we start to look beyond the basic practical value of the materials”.
Clothing becomes fashion, buildings become architecture, and the materials allow us to think big and grow more ambitious. One of Miodownik’s central points is that materials provide an enormous power of inspiration that accelerates our imagination, making us think in new directions.
“We are living in the dreams of the past. People used to dream of being able to talk to anyone in the world at any time, and now it’s there – the mobile phone”. Miodownik smiles and points to the small block of glass, metals and electronics lying on the table between us. “We dreamt of being able to go to the Moon and materials like titanium and aluminium made it possible. The question is whether our dreams are limited by our imagination or by the physical limits of our materials”.
Materials determine the physical bounds of our expressions and the development of new materials helps break the bounds that have hitherto been seen as confining our efforts. According to Miodownik, materials in many ways chart the course of the development of our civilisation. As a striking example, he cites the historical development of glass and lenses:
“The production of glass made lenses possible. Lenses led to the microscope which showed us a world in micro-scale that we didn’t know existed; glass is a material which is a basic prerequisite for our modern scientific understanding of the world”.
Among historians of science, it is a moot question why Europe, above all, experienced a scientific revolution in the 17th century – and not China, which at the time was much more highly developed in terms of craft and the processing of materials such as wood, paper, ceramics, and metals. According to Miodownik, part of the answer is to be found in the fact that European scientists were better at exploiting the scientific potential of glass. in China, glass was something rare that was only imported from abroad on a small scale. In Europe, which had a long tradition of manufacturing clear glass, chemical apparatuses and optical instruments were built from it – essential components in the development of modern science. Glass was the material that made possible the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s 1676 observation of microorganisms such as red blood cells and spermatozoa through the lens of a microscope. Afterwards, van Leeuwenhoek has become known as the world’s first microbiologist.
This new understanding of the world of biology that glass and lenses made possible a little less than 400 years ago, is about to take another step forward as materials science once again breaks some of the limits by which we have felt bound. Today, tissue engineering is used to grow biological material by means of synthetic ‘scaffolding’ inside the body. This includes templates cast from advanced biocompatible and biodegradable polymers in which the tissue can grow. The polymers that are used for scaffolding are dissolved as the cells build up a new surrounding structure, and in this way diseased or damaged tissue – bones, cartilage, muscles and even organs – can be rebuilt.
“These methods are already in use. in our university [University College London, ed.] they recently built a windpipe for a person using tissue engineering. And it works. The question is how far we can go with it”, Miodownik says. “Will all kidneys and livers be built this way in the future? It’s possible; no one quite knows yet but in the next five years, i think we will have a much better understanding – it’s a very fast moving field”.
The future is made of carbon
Glass is an example of a material that enabled us to observe the smallest things (cells, bacteria) and the largest (planets, stars, the cosmos), violently expanding the limits of what we thought possible. One may draw a line from the development of the microscope and the new understanding of human biology it entailed, to the groundbreaking research in e.g. tissue engineering that is taking place right now.
If you ask Miodownik which materials he envisages as playing an equally revolutionary role in the future, his answer is:
“It’s very likely that carbon-based materials are going to play a big part in the future. We already see the symptoms of this now. Airplanes are starting to be built out of carbon fibre, which makes them lighter, stronger and able to save a lot of fuel. But it’s still in an experimental phase, and it’s difficult to get it to work. We have hundreds of years of experience with construction materials such as steel and aluminium and we understand these materials – their potential and limitations – better. It’s going to take time to utilise carbon as well, but i think it’s the future”.
Carbon-based materials, such as graphene and nanotubes, are relatively new discoveries, but it didn’t take many years before they were extolled as some of the super-materials of the future. Among their common attributes, we find an enormous strength and durability, transparency, flexibility, and sensitivity to a broad spectrum of light; they are also extremely efficient conductors of heat and electricity. The versatility of carbon materials has created a lot of hype, and there seems to be no corner of the technological and industrial world that they don’t have the potential to revolutionise. Anything from touch screens and computer chips to cars and airplanes may in the future become better, stronger and lighter if built from carbon-based materials. But we can do more than improving our existing technology. Ideas and concepts that have hitherto solely belonged to the world of theory and speculation now have the potential to be realised.
Ever since the Polish-Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895 proposed the idea of a ‘celestial castle’ – a base in orbit around the Earth attached with cables to a foundation on the Earth’s surface – the notion of a space elevator has fascinated people and been the subject of scientific speculation. Now it seems that materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene can convert the speculations to reality, and the Japanese industrial giant Obayashi Corporation already has plans to build a space elevator before the year 2050. Such an elevator, according to the Obayashi homepage, will consist of a 96,000 km cable made from carbon nano-materials with the strength to transport 100-ton ‘climbers’ through the Earth’s atmosphere into space. The space elevator may become a robust source of solar energy and a pathway to further exploration of space that does not involve having to launch rockets out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
A new apollo project
Despite the new wonder-materials such as graphene, nanotubes and biologically degradable polymers, some experts like to point out that the innovation in the development of materials today is much slower than in the days of the Space Race from the 1950s to the 1970s when Soviet and American scientists competed to be the first to come up with solutions to enormous challenges such as ‘how to build something that can travel through space’, or, ‘how to put a man on the Moon’. Among the experts who have made this point, we find Suveen Mathaudhu, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California-Riverside, and a former manager of the materials science division of the US Army. According to Mathaudhu, engineers and materials scientists of today lack an external driver that pushes the development of materials in a radical and original direction:
“We need another Apollo or Sputnik moment. Back then, the Space Race pushed the limits of materials science, which lead to innovations that could be felt all the way down through the value chain of society”, Mathaudhu says.
The Space Race, and in particular the Apollo programme, led to the discovery and commercialisation of a huge number of the materials found everywhere today. The so-called ‘NASA spin- off’ technologies include, among other things, memory foam. This shock-absorbing material was originally developed for use aboard NASA vessels, but has later found great use in the civilian sphere where it is used today in everything from mattresses, car seats and furniture to horse saddles and prostheses. The ‘Magnaplate’ alloy is another example of spin-off technology. This dry alloy, which renders unnecessary the use of oil or other lubricants on metals, was developed for use in the vacuum of outer space. Today, this alloy is found in all kinds of factories where it is used as an efficient substitute for wet lubricants. freeze-dried foods and modern solar cells are other examples of technologies that were developed on the basis of NASA’s materials research during the Space Race, but can be found everywhere today.
If the exploration of space is no longer as strong a driving force for the development of new materials as it used to be, this may be due to the fact that resources are no longer allocated to the field in such large amounts. When NASA’s budget reached its top level in 1966, it corresponded to 4.5 percent of the entire US federal budget. in comparison, NASA’s share today is only about one half of one percent. So, it is possible that the reason for the worries of Mathaudhu and others can be found in the lack of funding as an incentive in materials research. But that may not be the whole story.
A world wrapped in plastic
The lack of big international projects with a common goal to strive for does not necessarily mean that the development of new materials does not have a clear direction. In many ways, sustainability and the ‘low-carbon’ agenda has become the current paradigm that everybody who works in materials construction or design must take into account.
Today, we are increasingly aware that there is a shady underside to the bright surface of technology, and in many ways, the development of materials has more difficult conditions than previously. it is no longer enough that a material is hard-wearing, fireproof, light, or insulating, if it also poses a health risk or puts a strain on the environment. A material such as asbestos is a good example of this. for most of the history of human civilisation, asbestos has been a popular and frequently used material, and for millennia, asbestos fibres have been used in everything from construction to sewing because of its strength, resistance to fire, and heat-insulating qualities. for a long time, asbestos was exalted as a wonder material, and throughout the 20th century, there were no limits to the way it was being used; concrete, bricks, building insulation, roofing, flooring, car brakes – the possible applications of the material seemed to be endless. Asbestos was even tested in cigarette filters in the 1950s because of its great heat resistance.
Today, asbestos has been banned in many countries because of the health risk associated with inhalation of the fibres, and to most people nowadays, the very word ‘asbestos’ has an unpleasant ring to it. That it can be dangerous to people is, however, far from a new discovery. As early as 2000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians described the health hazards associated with mining the material. Even so, it took two millennia before we acknowledged the health risks as such a large problem that we stopped using the material. in many ways, the history of asbestos – from super-material to a severely criticised and banned product – is indicative of the general shift in our relations to materials. We have started to attach more weight to the environmental and health-related consequences of materials than to their beneficial attributes. And this trend is increasing.
According to a report from World Green Building Trends, the number of ‘green’ building projects has been rising steadily since 2008. 92 percent of the architects, engineers, and building contractors that were interviewed for the report, said that they were involved in at least one green building project. Being green and sustainable, no matter how this is defined in the individual project, has become a common international goal that is on the lips of all architects, designers, engineers, and by now even politicians; it affects the materials we use, and the direction of materials science. The sustainability requirement means new conditions and new limitations, and if a material like asbestos were discovered today, it probably would not meet the much stricter demands of our times. But the sustainability paradigm also sets a number of new and clear goals to strive after, not unlike what the goal of ‘putting a man on the Moon’ did in the pioneering age of materials science in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. According to Mark Miodownik, the 21st century will provide challenges that impose new and far more severe demands on our materials.
“I’m all for big ambitious projects – putting people on Mars, for instance. i think those kinds of activities push the limits for material development and technology. But i think the most pressing challenge for the 21st century will be to optimise our materials, so that they become lighter, reusable and conserve more energy”.
All eras are strongly associated with their materials. We still name the prehistoric epochs – the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the iron Age – after the materials used in those periods. The 19th century is associated with industrialisation, coal-burning, railways, and suspension bridges built of steel. According to Miodownik, our own age will be remembered in one of two ways:
“Our time will be remembered as the age of silicon [the main constituent in transistors for computer chips, ed.] or the age of the rubbish bin. We’ve made enormous progress in materials development, but we’ve also produced mounds of plastic and metals that we don’t know what to do with. in the 21st century we can no longer afford to do this. Our challenge will be to sustain our material wealth without destroying the planet with our waste”.
To Miodownik, the material challenges of the future are obvious, but the road to a solution – which he is sure that we will find – is still uncertain.
“Our world is wrapped in plastic. And crude oil is our main source for all the plastic we produce. in many ways, plastic is a fantastic material and i don’t think we will want to get rid of it entirely. But we need to work out a way to produce it that doesn’t come from oil. it’s not easy. if we start making it out of crops instead, we will need to use a lot of farmland that is currently used to grow food. But to make plastics more sustainable and reusable is one of the 21st century’s greatest material challenges. I’m optimistic we will work it out”.
The future challenges regarding plastic, recycling, and sustainability in general, are something that many materials professionals will recognize. One of them is industrial designer Mette Bak-Andersen. As Managing Director of the Material Design Lab, she has a profound knowledge of what’s happening in the materials world and some interesting ideas about how the shift to sustainable materials will take place in the future. In her own work, Mette Bak has among other things developed a lamp of 100 percent reused plastic; it can now be bought in shops. But the future of sustainable materials does not only involve better recycling of stuff that is discarded today. In the future, sustainability must be considered in all the life phases of materials – from extraction of the raw material to recycling of the final product. One of the ways this can be done is by growing biodegradable materials with direct inspiration from nature:
“One project that we are involved in is the growing of synthetic bee silk. By use of bacteria it is possible to grow the DNA sequence of the silk spun by honey bees and thus produce a silk-protein material that can be used for making things like plastic and cloth”, Mette Bak says. “In the future, this will be used for biological plasters that do not have to be torn off, but can be absorbed by the skin”.
The search for answers to our material challenges in nature has given rise to a scientific field – biomimetics. Biomimetics is based on the recognition of the fact that nature has had millions of years to optimise itself and thus contains an enormous unexploited potential for technological innovation. A well-known example of biomimetics is Velcro, which was originally designed with inspiration from burdock – a plant whose flowers are covered with prickles with little hooks at the top.
“Velcro imitates structures that are found in nature on a mechanical level. But within biomimetics, you also gain inspiration from the chemical composition of biological materials”, Mette Bak says. “How come the metallic paint used for cars has to be toxic when the forest floor contains beetles that produce the same colour naturally and are completely biodegradable? Why do we use combustion to produce electricity and light when there is a jellyfish that can produce light by chemical reactions at a depth of several hundred metres? In many ways, nature is a superior designer”.
Biomimetics is a rapidly developing field, not least because it offers solutions to the greatest material challenges of the future, concerning sustainability and green energy.
A current topic of research is how artificial leaves built from synthetic materials can produce photosynthesis. Researchers have successfully taken chlorophyll from plants (the substance that gives them their green colour) and inserted it into nanostructures built from a special kind of silica. in this way, they have been able to start a process that turns light, water and carbon dioxide into energy as efficiently as natural plants and algae do it. if this technology in the future can be upgraded to a more general level, it may become a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.
Materials make up a basis for our notions of alternative futures. Whether we look at the future through the lens of biomimetics, carbon-based technology or tissue engineering, it is the potentials of the materials that lead us to imagine it to be radically different from today. There will be no space elevators without carbon, and no artificial hearts without 3D printed biomaterials. As new materials are developed and put into practical use, our range of possible applications for them increases, and so, it is important not to lose our basic, physical, and direct connection to them. for the same reason, it is no coincidence that material libraries like the one at the Material Design Lab in Copenhagen are being established all over the world. Materials generate ideas, if you know them well.