Friday, February 21, 2014

The Promise of Meta-materials: A Glimpse at the Future under Construction?

by Nomad

If one professor's vision is correct, then the future may hardly be recognizable. The development of meta-materials has been evolving more quickly that anybody could have expected.  
One thing is certain. The technology will give rise to completely new materials with extraordinary properties and  will change the nature of construction. 
And it's just around the corner.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum,  Dr. Julia R. Greer,  a professor of Materials Science and Mechanics at California Institute of Technology, spoke about very small things which will soon make very big changes to our world.

In her fast-paced lecture, Greer explained how, by using a combination of techniques, scientists of the near future will be able to create new materials- meta-materials- with mind-bending properties. Building materials, for example, which can be strong or stronger than steel and yet weigh one million times lighter. That's not a random number pulled out of a hat.

"Imagine a world where the next generation of planes are just as powerful and just as efficient but weigh as little as a toy airplane? Imagine a world where the total amount of material used to construct a bridge the size of the Golden Gate is small enough to hold in the palm of your hand? We believe we have found a way to bring that world closer to reality."
So how is it possible? In Greer's lecture, she explains the process in detail. The fabrication technique is actually a synthesis of technologies, namely, architectural design, material science and nanotechnology, all working an incredibly small scale. It's like playing God with a molecular-sized 3D printer.

Working at such a scale changes the properties of the materials themselves, thereby engineering something not found in nature.  One reason the materials can be so light yet so strong is because the materials are created in a lattice form- a crystal structure is composed of a pattern. That pattern forms a kind of scaffolding for  rigid material, creating a composite coating for the lattice. 
The result? Ninety-nine percent of the material is air (or whatever gas you want, actually) but the linking connections make the composite as hard as steel. 

The materials in lab, according to the Greer lecture, are also able to absorb energy and return to their original shape, very much like a sponge. A diamond hard sponge if you can conceive of that idea.   
And that's just the beginning. 
New composites- with even stranger properties- can be developed by incorporating different materials into the lattice work. Super-elasticity and transparency, or absolute light absorption or reflective properties, for example, all could also be designed into a material.
And the holy grail for material scientists has been room temperature super conductivity. This would allow a material to conduct electricity with no resistance, no waste, no heat. 
Best of all, a combination of properties is not out of the question.
The mind reels.

What other applications are possible? The sky's the limit. To give one example: Shipping construction materials into space has been uneconomical based on weight to cost. Today, according to NASA, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth's orbit. However, those cost limitations practically dissolve with this new technology.
Admittedly the technology Greer talks about in her lecture has not yet been scaled-up to industrial size. Scientists undoubtedly will still have to work out some of the kinks. However, these ideas are also more than science fiction or theoretical dreaming. Greer points out that these materials have already been made.

But this is only the first step. As the technology develops, the techniques will become cheaper and more creative. 
For example, in the future, using different meta-materials it will be possible to design an emergency shelter to be used after a disaster. It could have a water-resistant (or water-collecting and filtering) material for the outside walls, Another material that that could absorb sunlight like a solar panel. The material might be as elastic and light as a rubber raft. After being anchored to the ground, the shelter could be blown up to full size with compressed air. Best of all, thousands of these shelters could be could be delivered at a time.
Why not?

Greer's fascinating lecture fleshes out many of the details. But it's only a tantalizing peek into a very interesting new world. 
The problem is, of course, whether we will make it there.
If we can hold the world together long enough, and survive with destroying ourselves and killing the rest of life on Earth, the future could be a pretty incredible place. 

Here's the full lecture if you'd like to take a look but it's probably more for academics.