(Excerpted, more or less, from a series of blogs by Peter Diamantis MD, series on significant emerging technologies in which Peter Diamandis explores the disruptive drivers changing the 21st century, we hear the thoughts and opinions of Jeff Carbeck, chemical engineer, materials scientist, entrepreneur and head of Advanced Materials at Deloitte Consulting. Carbeck has served on the faculty of Princeton University’s Chemical Engineering Department. His PhD is from MIT, and did his post-doctoral work at Harvard University. He also served as chief scientist at NanoTerra, and is the cofounder and CTO of Arsenal Medical.)
Top 5 Recent Materials Science Breakthroughs: 2013 to 2015
Top 5 Recent Materials Science Breakthroughs: 2013 to 2015
1. Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) predicts thousands of new materials.
In the same way that the Human Genome Initiative mapped every gene in our human body and then was able to use machine learning to make predictions, the Materials Genome Initiative seeks to map out the hundreds of millions of different combinations of elements in the periodic table. Why? Creating this database will allow scientists using AI to predict properties of new material combinations. Carbeck explains, “Over the last few years we’ve been able to take the 10,000 materials we know about, and, with the help of high performance computing and quantum mechanics, start to predict properties of new materials that don’t exist yet.”
2. Graphene empowers new electronics, sensors, and composites.
The potential impact of graphene, a two-dimensional version of diamond or graphite, is emerging. It will be a key factor in a world of ubiquitous sensing and ubiquitous computing. Graphene is two-hundred times stronger than steel by weight. In the last decade we’ve seen it emerge as a material of choice for very high performance transistors, sensors, and new composites.
3. Rechargeable metal-air batteries make grid scale storage low cost and reliable.
New types of batteries are emerging. These are metal-air such as aluminum-air, zinc-air and lithium-air. They are smaller and lighter because they don’t require the extra bulk and weight of a chemical oxidizer. They have the potential to power the 1.2 billion people around the world today who don’t have access to reliable sources of electricity. “Grids using metal-air batteries have the potential to leapfrog traditional centralized energy production and distribution, especially in places like Africa,” states Carbeck.
4. Transferable ultra-thin silicon circuits enable electronics on and in the body.
We are developing technology to transfer high-performance electronics from rigid silicon wafers to form factors that can go on or inside our bodies. This is changing the way we interface with electronics – from how we track our daily activities, how we monitor our health and how we communicate and connect to the Cloud.
5. Soft robotics starting to change the human-machine interface.
Materials science allows us to make robotic structures out of fundamentally different materials to behave in different ways. For example, rather than a rigid metallic prosthetic limb, imagine a soft robotic prosthetic that actuates like muscle when activated by an electric field. “These soft materials will create a completely different physical interaction between humans and robots, electrically active, allowing us to design push and pull systems, much like muscles.”
So what’s in store for the near future?
Top 5 Anticipated Materials Science Breakthroughs: 2016 to 2018
1. Meta materials will become widespread.
The continued convergence of super-computing, modeling software, and micron-level additive manufacturing plus other manufacturing techniques will allow us to increase our ability to predict, engineer and construct meta materials with incredible properties not yet found in nature (for example, invisibility cloaks that make objects covered by them invisible).
2. Perovskite solar cells will beat silicon photovoltaics.
Perovskite is an amazing material that happens to make very efficient and cheap solar cells. When perovskite’s solar voltaic properties were first discovered five years ago, they provided conversion efficiency of about 4%. Now it’s 20%, and expected to rise to 30% in the next few years. Perovskite is 100 to 1,000 times cheaper than current materials used to manufacture silicon solar cells. By 2017 we should see mass deployment, a major contributor in moving the planet towards a solar-powered future.
3. AI coupled with the Materials Genome Initiative will allow us to commercialize new materials exponentially faster.
The Materials Genome Initiative developed over the past few years will come into full impact as cloud computing and machine learning allow scientists to discover new material combinations and material properties. Expect a lot of new commercialization efforts resulting from the application of AI. You’ll be able to say, “I want to build a next-generation implant for my knee,” states Carbeck, and your AI will understand all possible materials available and help choose ones that will be the most reliable and safe.
4. Carbon nanotubes and graphene will significantly extend Moore’s Law.
If Moore’s Law is to continue, we’ll need fundamentally different ways to organize materials into computers. Graphene and carbon nanotubes are among the most promising solutions. These materials contain properties that will allow us to continue to improve computing price-performance. We’ll even be able to manufacture a chip using traditional technologies, then add graphene functionality through materially pre-programmed self-assembly.
5. Recyclable carbon fiber composites.
While high-performance thermoset and thermoplastic composites are enabling breakthroughs like the Boeing Dreamliner and the BMW i8, the challenge remains that once heated and set they are irreversibly cured and unalterable, unlike aluminum and steel, which both can be melted and reused. But recent breakthroughs can change this, increasing their utility. Carbeck explains, “There have been real breakthroughs in chemistry that allow us to reverse the chemical reaction that makes the plastic composite depolymerize back into liquid form for reuse.”