Invisibility cloaks and self-healing cars - such fanciful ideas may someday be a part of everyday life, as high-tech developments and processes transform materials.
A great deal of research has been directed toward the creation of new materials that can meet changing consumer needs. In the past, efforts for advancing the field of material technology have yielded revolutionary results, and today further progress has shown some remarkable leaps in material capabilities. From the augmentation of steel to the branching possibilities of nanotechnology, high-tech material development is poised to change the landscape of the manufacturing industry.
Late last year, Materials Today
magazine listed its top 10 selections for advancements in the field. Three of those are included here along with several additions of our own choosing.
Certain irregularities can affect the internal magnetic properties of steel and lower its resistance to heat. Recent work conducted by the ITER
fusion research project has found ways to reduce these flaws, producing new steel materials rated up to 70 percent stronger than their traditional counterparts.
According to Daily Tech
, the "super steel" is being considered as a shielding material for reactors, as its higher resistance levels may be suitable for withstanding extreme amounts of heat and radiation.
Other proprietary forms of enhanced steel, such as those developed by MMFX Technologies
, are said to be nearly twice as strong as conventional alternatives and possess roughly five times the level of corrosion resistance. These types of steel have already been used in several reinforced construction projects and, according to Structure
magazine, have the potential to reduce material usage by a considerable amount.
While strengthened steel may be impressive, perhaps more surprising is the recent advent of tough, durable paper that can rival metal in its tensile properties. Known as "buckypaper," this new material is composed of exceptionally thin carbon molecules. When stacked and compressed, the paper composite can potentially exhibit hundreds of times the strength of steel while remaining a tenth of the weight.
"If this thing goes into production, this very well could be a very, very game-changing or revolutionary technology to the aerospace business," a technologist for Lockheed Martin recently told the Associated Press (via CNN.com
Long-term applications for buckypaper include airplanes and cars, while short-term possibilities exist for building fuel cells, batteries, computers and television screens. As yet, larger projects are impractical because the paper is costly to produce even in small quantities and at a fraction of its theoretical strength.
Products that incorporate nanomaterials in one form or another include computer processors and hard drives, mobile phones, home appliances, automotive components, medical instruments and even cosmetics. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
provides a more comprehensive list
Aside from its potential in construction and electronics, new applications for nanotechnology have opened avenues for the melding of biology and high-tech manufacturing. Microscopic carbon nanotubes, similar to the ones found in buckypaper, have been used to target cancer cells within the human body, reports New Scientist
Potential military applications might be the most "sci-fi" of nanotechnology developments. Some defense contractors are investing in nanomaterial research to develop vehicles that could theoretically "heal" themselves after being damaged.
"What we're looking for are smart materials that once you get a hole in one of those things, then it kind of regenerates itself," a director of advanced technology at Lockheed Martin recently told Defense News
. "The same is true for putting materials and components into outer space. We really need self-healing types of applications."
Soft lithography is a material processing technique that allows microstructures to be produced for data systems and microelectronics without relying on the more elaborate and expensive photolithography method. By transferring molecules onto a substrate using a contact stamp, soft lithography provides a cheap and accurate alternative for printing solid materials, even on nanoscale projects.
"Soft lithography offers an attractive route to microscale structures and systems needed for applications in biotechnology, and most of them exceed the traditional scope defined by classic photolithography," a researcher at the University of Washington told Materials Today
Biologists have also employed this method to take snapshots of white cell groups in order to study specific immune system functions, as well as other organic materials under microarrays, reports Science Daily
In the world of optics and electromagnetism, metamaterials seem to defy some of the long-held suppositions about how waves function. Constructed from artificial particles smaller than light wavelengths, metamaterials exhibit a negative refractive index
that causes light to bend around an object. This could, in theory, render an object invisible.
"You'd have to wrap whatever you wanted to cloak in the material," a researcher at UC Berkeley recently told the Toronto Star
. "By sending light around the object that is cloaked, you don't see it."
Unlike existing stealth technology, which reduces an aircraft's radar profile, metamaterial cloaking would cause waves to bypass their target entirely, making a vehicle invisible even to the human eye. Naturally, the potential military applications for this technology are vast, and the U.S. Army Research Office is providing funding for several projects on the subject.
According to an Army spokesman quoted in the Toronto Star
, the Pentagon hopes to develop a special coating that can be applied to tanks, planes, buildings and even people in order to make them invisible.
While any major applications for such technology are still projected for years down the road, it wouldn't be far-fetched to expect metamaterials and cloaking technology to appear in our lifetime though we may not see them coming.
The Top Ten Advances in Materials Science
by Jonathan Wood
Materials Today, Dec. 19, 2007
The ITER Project
U.S. Beats Britain to Fusion Super Steel
by Jason Mick
Daily Tech, Oct. 28, 2008
Reducing Steel, Increasing Profits
by Sheila Bacon
Structure Magazine, January, 2006
Revolutionary Paper is Stronger than Steel
The Associated Press (via CNN.com), Oct. 20, 2008
High-Performance Materials Institute
Florida State University
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Nanotube "Longboats" Slaughter Cancer Cells
New Scientist, Sept. 6, 2008
Scientists Develop Magnetic Nanoparticle Contrast Agents for Blood Cells
Phillips Research, Oct. 2, 2008
Lockheed Martin Looks to Nanotechnology
by Antonie Boessenkool
Defense News, Sept. 12, 2008
Protein-Printing Technique Gives Snapshots of Immune System Defense
Science Daily, Nov. 3, 2008
The Research Group of David R. Smith
Duke University, June 10, 2006
Science of Invisibility's Giant Leap Forward
by Lynda Hurst
Toronto Star, Oct. 25, 2008