Material science will be vital for development of many emerging technologies poised to fundamentally change our lives and industrial processes. Just a few examples include mobile electronic technology; molecular and quantum computing; recovering of alternative energy sources; the biotechnology revolution; robotics and automation; 3D printing; and self-assembling.
Working with new materials is motivated by a quest for improved performance or new functionality. Improved performance, in terms of increased strength or toughness, can pave the way for lightweight structures in transportation, whereas new functionality can open up the possibilities for radically new design solutions. A new group of materials that is under development is auxetic materials, which are a group of materials known to have negative Poisson’s ratio characterized by becoming thicker perpendicular to the applied force direction, hence enhancing mechanical properties such as high energy absorption and fracture resistance. These materials are today used by aerospace, automotive, military, biomedical and the textile industry and to a large extend enabled by 3D printing. Use of auxetic materials for smart filters and sensors technologies may help make society more energy efficient and environmentally friendly by supporting new energy technologies.
Advanced materials, technology innovation and shifts in materials-selection strategies will play a role to enable broader access to clean water; advances in biomaterials such as artificial organs; protective materials designed to prevent injury; safer bridges and roadways based on advances in concrete designs; and, advanced optical fibres that could provide even faster internet access. As the use of renewable energy increases, energy storage devices and processes will become more important. Continuing improvements in battery technologies are increasing both their energy and power densities.Hydrogen production through electrolysis powered by solar energy has been around for several decades. Increased solar power availability combined with new developments in electrochemical catalysts and technology will reduce the cost of hydrogen1. Materials innovation and new risk assessment approaches will be needed to ensure that safe and reliable hydrogen storage, transportation and distribution systems are established around the world. Energy efficiency improvements will be further enhanced through the use of improved thermoelectric materials2.
Reduction in wear and corrosion of materials can yield many advantages, including reducing energy consumption in operating systems, and in the production of replacement materials.
Lack of material will most likely be a critical factor in the future to meet societal demands for a convenient and sustainable living. The Yale Centre for Industrial Ecology defines materials criticality as a product of three elements consisting of supply risk (scarcity), environmental risk, and vulnerability to supply restriction (geopolitical concerns). With this perspective, securing reliable access to minerals will be an important technology driver to minimize uncertain supply risk. This concern is most problematic for materials such as rare earths, precious metals and lithium that are used in advanced energy systems.
Materials technology will play an important role in the design and development of materials for recycling. Some materials are by nature more challenging than others in achieving mechanical properties close to virgin materials, and the number of recycling cycles will be a key factor. Composite materials and various types of plastics are currently technically or economically challenging to re-use, but here new process and fabrication methods may be able to help. For example, feedstock materials for 3D printing, are likely to be largely based on a local supply of recycled materials.
Sustainability of raw materials is important. It is forecasted that global production of base materials will increase by more than two thirds (68%), from 29 to 51 billion (bn) tonnes, between 2030 and 20503.Consequently, we need to consider not only the economically recoverable resource reserves for these elements, but also dwindling ore quality and the increasing amounts of water, energy and chemicals required for their recovery, as well as the environmental and social impacts of mining operations.
The lack of raw material and requirements to recycling mean new precision materials will have to be developed and used in components and structures. Some will be completely novel, such as functional surface materials, hybrid materials, nano-materials, super-strong graphene, and thin-film materials. Others will be further developments of traditional materials such as high-strength and lightweight metal alloys, polymers and composites.
To relieve the strain on critical raw material supply, such as the rare metals gallium, germanium and indium, and to promote more environmentally friendly natural materials from a recycling perspective, use of biomimetic materials will see large commercial use in 2030. Research in this field is extensive within the medical field related to growing new organs, artificial muscles, tissues etc. Organic structures could pave the way, for instance, for new ways of manufacturing transparent displays, corrosion-resistant coatings or various sensors by means of carbon nanostructures.
The need to arrive at flexible or alternative material solutions will be important towards 2030. It will potentially require new uses for materials, and development of new advanced materials, often in hybrid solutions. New energy technologies will enhance clean, sustainable, efficient energy storage. This sector will be among those that benefit most from progress in advanced materials. Materials for lighter and less energy-intensive processing, and with new functionalities that enable recycling, easier disassembly and reuse will be sought out. For new materials to be practical, they must also be economical to produce and allow for manufacturing-friendly assembly. That said, multimaterials systems can complicate recycling and materials serviceability because more complex and intermixed materials combinations need processing or disassembling. Thus, the overall sustainability impact of these novel designs should be assessed from a holistic standpoint that factors in the associated social, environmental and economic risks and benefits. Likewise, responsible sourcing, worker safety, and human welfare impacts of trends like automation and increases in process efficiency should be given greater consideration.
International corporations are already beginning to take responsibility for the implementation of sustainable materials both from an ethical but also branding perspective. Danish toy maker Lego has a 2030 ambition of finding and implementing sustainable alternatives to current materials investigating the use of sustainable LEGO-bricks made of sugarcane4 and Swedish retailer IKEA started using biodegradable packaging for its products instead of plastics5. Read more: Virtual material test laboratories.Contributors
Main author: Agnes Marie Horn
Editor: Mark Irvine
- T. e. a. C. D., “Towards Materials Sustainability through Materials Stewardship,” Sustainability, vol. 8, p. 1001, 2016
- DNV GL (2018) Energy Transition Outlook
- J. He and T.M. Tritt, Advances in thermoelectric materials research: Looking back and moving forward. Science, 2017. 357, V. 357, Issue 6358, 29 September 2017
- Wired (2018). Lego Builds a Sustainable Future, One Brick at a Time
- Matador Network (2019). Ikea to use ‘mushroom packaging’ that will decompose in weeks