Materials Engineering Innovations in 2020 and Beyond: Building Our Future World

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Powering Up Batteries With New Materials

A major challenge of the renewable energy revolution is finding ways to effectively store and transfer green energy. Currently, lithium-ion batteries—themselves one of the great breakthroughs of materials engineering—are the standard. But lithium is relatively scarce and can’t be scaled up effectively, so researchers are looking to advanced materials to fill the gap.

According to a team of scientists from ORNL, Drexel, Boston University, and the University of California Riverside, one possibility lies in ionic liquids (ILs), which could be a safe alternative to the organic electrolytes used in devices powered by lithium-ion batteries. ILs could potentially operate up to six volts, nearly double the power of a lithium-ion battery and quadruple the power of a traditional household battery.

Meanwhile, a different team of researchers is combining old and new to achieve innovative solutions. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that depositing a layer of PEDOT, a conductive polymer, throughout a typical red brick can turn it into a supercapacitor. So far, the results have been relatively minimal: it took about three small bricks to power a single LED for ten minutes, and 50 bricks attached to a solar panel in order to power emergency lighting for five hours. Still, it’s early stages, and the next generation of energy storage might be right underneath our noses—or feet.

Nice Sandals! Are They Made of Algae?

Leave it to Southern Californians to invest their intellectual capital in a subject like sandals. But don’t snicker at the thought too much. Sandals are the world’s most popular shoe, and they make up a sizable percentage of the plastic waste in our planet’s oceans, beaches, and landfills. Most sandals are made out of commercial products such as polyester, bioplastics, and fossil-fuel plastics, which only biodegrade under extreme lab conditions or forms of industrial composting.

Research conducted in part by the University of California San Diego offers an alternative that’s more environmentally friendly: polyurethane foams made from algae oil and designed to meet commercial specifications.

Currently, the foams are 52 percent bio-content, with the ultimate goal being 100 percent. Scientists not only tested the creation of the foam but they also tested its degradation in the natural environment. When immersed in soil, the materials degraded on their own in 16 weeks, forming what researchers call a bioloop. Materials scientists believe that this development could begin to undo the negative effects of plastics, which, if not otherwise addressed, will result in millions of metric tons of waste over the coming decades.

Let the AI Do the Thinking

In 2011, President Obama announced the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI), a collective effort to leverage AI and open source science in order to boost innovation in the field of materials engineering. These AI and machine learning algorithms can process hundreds of millions of possible elemental combinations, allowing materials engineers to create novel materials faster and more effectively. Since 2011, computer assistance has become commonplace in materials science. Today, researchers at MIT are using high-powered automation software to model and simulate new materials and their varied combinations.

Producing new materials faster and more effectively isn’t just the key to engineering breakthroughs, it’s also a way to wean dependence off of certain rare minerals. According to the US Department of the Interior, 35 minerals in particular are classified as critical to the nation’s national security and economy. Researchers at the US Geological Survey followed up the announcement with a list of 23 minerals that were at risk of supply chain disruption, but critical to the nation’s ability to produce high tech products such as rechargeable batteries.

Proteus: Can’t Cut This

A team of British and German researchers looked at some grapefruits and mollusks and thought, hey, there’s a good idea. This citric-shellfish inspiration led them to create what is believed to be the first non-cuttable material, which the creators have named Proteus.

Proteus mimics the hard shell of a mollusk and the tough skin of a grapefruit: it’s a lightweight material made of ceramic spheres inside a cellular aluminum structure. Water jets, drills, and angle grinders are all turned back on themselves when they encounter a layer of Proteus. In addition to its science fiction allure, Proteus has applications in safety wear, locks, and armor. It’s also a reminder of the way advancements in materials engineering can make the impossible possible (or, in the case of Proteus, the other way around).

Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs): Less Is Moore

For decades, Silicon Valley has been powered by Moore’s Law, which observed that processing power roughly doubled every two years. That increase in processing power was reflective of the number of transistors on a processing chip, a number which again doubled roughly every two years as the size of those transistors shrank. But the trend has slowed in the last few years, and with transistors shrunken down to a few dozen atoms in scale, researchers are wondering if silicon has reached its limit.

Say hello to carbon nanotube transistors (CNTs), which make modern transistors look downright obese by comparison. CNTs stack sheets of one-atom-thick graphene and roll them up until they’re efficient semiconductors. It’s possible that they could one day supplant today’s silicon chips, but the process remains expensive and time-consuming.

Researchers are exploring a hybrid option, involving dipping silicon wafers into a CNT solution. In doing so, they’re able to reduce the development process’s timespan from 48 hours to 150 seconds. It still hasn’t yielded a working computer chip, but researchers are hopeful that it’ll one day displace silicon and give a jumpstart to Moore’s Law. It might sound ambitious, but DARPA’s betting $61 million on it happening in the next two years.

Putting It All Together: Additive Manufacturing

One of the most important trends in materials engineering is based around how new (and old) materials can be combined, used, and assembled through additive manufacturing (AM), a form of 3D printing.

Additive manufacturing has several benefits, many of which are environment friendly: there’s less waste, less carbon footprint, and little to no assembly required. It’s also well-suited to meet the challenges of contemporary materials engineering by fabricating complex components with specific geometries.

Additive manufacturing is already here. In June 2020, GE Renewable Energy announced that it would be using AM to print optimized concrete bases for wind turbines that would reach record heights of up to 200 meters (taller than two Statues of Liberty stacked on top of one another).

The tech is also empowering MIT researchers to develop novel nuclear materials that can optimize both accident tolerance and performance. And sometimes the most futuristic solutions can lead back into the past: scientists at Texas A&M are using additive manufacturing to 3D print structures out of a sustainable building material made from local soil.

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