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Metamaterials and nanotechnology: what’s trending in new materials innovation?


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Have you ever seen an object shrink sideways, or one that can be programmed to change shape several times over? Would you feel more secure in your Los Angeles or Tokyo office building if it could flex with earthquakes? Fancy buying a jacket that warms you up or cools you down according to the temperature outdoors, or yoga pants that prompt you to align better or hold an asana longer? 


Innovative solutions such as these are aimed at meeting consumer demands by increasing sustainability, improving quality of life, and simplifying or automating basic procedures and tasks. They help us save us time and energy and achieve greater levels of comfort in our daily existence. 


As disruptive technologies, they emerge thanks to great strides forward and enormous creativity in engineering and design but, above all else, they rely on the advent of an interminable list of new materials that are quickly making their way out of laboratories to be incorporated into the goods we are buying now – or will be buying in the future.


Most of us have heard of terms such as ‘nanotechnology’ but would be hard pressed to define what this actually is, let alone when and how the products derived from it are changing our lives for the better. To provide some insight on this fascinating field, here we take a brief look at some of these new materials and major trends in the field, as well as how they could be used to create disruptive devices, objects and systems. While many of these are still in the experimental stages, some are already being commercialised or will be in the near future.  



Metamaterials: what are they and what can we use them for?


‘Metamaterials’ are materials that cannot be found in nature and are not of  chemical origin. Highly complex in structure, they are created through geometry and can be engineered to produce objects that exhibit unique and ‘strange’ behavior when exposed to different stimuli. Shape memory, self-healing and phase-changing are all examples of this type of behavior. Or behaviors, in plural: one of the traits of metamaterials is that the objects composed of them can be designed to perform in multiple ways. 


Most interestingly, metamaterials can be combined with one another to overcome any pre-existing incompatibilities between the properties of the individual materials.


The properties of metamaterials


  • Acoustic control: If the metamaterial is placed between sender and receiver, it can be designed to amplify, direct, manipulate or suppress soundwaves, or ‘phonons’, in solids, liquids and gases. This has exciting implications for music production and performance as well as for sound-proofing, acoustic-contamination control, and military defense.


  • Invisibility: because of their unusual optical properties, some metamaterials are inferior in wavelength to the visible light spectrum and, therefore, invisible to the human eye. Even more compellingly, objects that are derived from certain metamaterials or ‘cloaked’ with a layer of them can become invisible as well. This type of innovation will undoubtedly make an impact on fashion, cosmetics and beauty treatments, as well as military supplies and weapons.



What’s in store for nanotechnology?


Intimately linked to the development of metamaterials, nanotechnology is concerned with matter on a very reduced scale: between 1 nanometer and 100 nanometers in size. To give you an idea of what these dimensions mean on a practical level, it is said that it takes 80,000 nanometers to equal the width of a single human hair. 


In essence, nanotechnology allows atoms to be manipulated and moved around in order to create new objects, devices and systems on a minute scale. However, because nanotechnology deals with the distribution of atomic, molecular and macromolecular materials, the properties of devices and objects produced through nanotechnology are different from those of their large-scale counterparts and thus their capacity for unusual behavior.


According to the definition by Thomas Theis, director of physical sciences at the IBM Watson Research Center, ‘nanotechnology is an upcoming economic, business and social phenomenon… that will revolutionise the way we live, work and communicate.’


Nanotechnology in action


Nanoparticles are used in sunscreens to filter harmful UV light, and they give tennis balls and tennis rackets more bounce, for longer. Likewise, they are an essential part of the computer technology we have grown to rely on. Without nanotechnology, computing as we know it – not to mention the Internet – would simply not be possible.


Nanotechnology is especially useful when it comes to coating the surfaces of machine parts in order to protect them from corrosion and wear due to mechanical, physical and chemical agents. The automotive and aerospace industries employ nanotechnology in a variety of ways. Due to the increase in bond strength they provide, nanoparticles have also been used in adhesives, including the ones dentists use to do cosmetic fillings. 


Ultimately, advances in nanotechnology have allowed for the development of 2D or single-layer materials, which offer increased flexibility, enhanced tensile strength and greater surface durability, as well as for the current trend in surface engineering to prevent erosion and wear in machine parts, among its many other applications.


Trends on the radar for new materials


When developing new materials technology, innovators look to solve a broader issue in society. Innovations respond to unmet needs on the part of consumers, which tend to evolve over time. These are the trends to look out for in new materials tech:


Sustainability. Very few industries have remained indifferent to the demand for sustainable materials. The construction, packaging and manufacturing sectors, among many others, have been faced with the need to adapt recyclable or renewable materials and processes into their workflows.


Lightweighting. Most relevant in the automotive industry, lightweighting decreases energy consumption in transportation and, therefore, the expense and contamination associated with it. The use of plastics or carbon-fibre instead of metals is the most evident example of this trend in materials use.


Additive manufacturing. The use of 3D printers to create objects by placing ultra-thin layer upon ultra-thin layer of plastic material has revolutionised manufacturing and mass production for a number of industries, including medical, dental, and nautical.



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