A Look at 5 Breakthrough Materials

Innovative materials can be found in nearly every aspect of modern life, from the metals and alloys found in our cars, to the plastics, ceramics and composites in our homes. Here we highlight a handful of recent developments in materials science that have the potential to further change our daily lives and help shape our world.

New materials can redefine the way we use standard objects, from operating equipment to cell phones. Here we highlight five exciting new materials in 2011. With such extensive, ongoing material advancements, we wonder if these will fulfill their promise.

Biosynthetic Material

Facial reconstruction may get a makeover with a new composite biomedical material that is formulated to restore damaged soft tissue, a potential breakthrough for those afflicted by facial deformities. Johns Hopkins biomedical engineers have developed a composite called PEG-HA, which consists of hyaluronic acid (HA), a biological material that gives young people's skin elasticity, and polyethylene glycol (PEG), a synthetic molecule that is commonly used as surgical glue, an announcement from Johns Hopkins Medicine explains. Lab tests have indicated that PEG-HA doesn't break down like pure biologicals, or get rejected like some synthetics. lead-in - LED light is used to lock the material in place 160x198.jpg

"The substance is injected under the skin in a liquid state, and is then 'set' like gelatin by shining a light on the area," Gizmag says. The energy from the light causes the PEG molecules to bond, trapping the HA molecules between them. As illustrated on the right, this "cross-linking" makes the implant hold its shape and not ooze away from the injection site. (See illustration)

"Our composite material has the best of both worlds, with the biological component enhancing compatibility with the body and the synthetic component contributing to durability," Jennifer Elisseeff, director of Translational Tissue Engineering Center at Hopkins' School of Medicine, said.

While the researchers say that PEG-HA is not yet ready for widespread clinical use, they hope it may eventually be able to help people who have been disfigured. Their research was recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine last month.

Micro-Holographic Material

General Electric Global Research, the technology development arm of GE, last month demonstrated a micro-holographic material that can support data recording at the same speed as Blu-ray discs — "a breakthrough in optical storage" that "could one day lead to commercially available digital storage with 20 times the capacity of standard Blu-ray discs," according to Broadcast Engineering.

Unlike current optical storage formats that hold information on up to four layers at the surface of the disc, "holographic storage uses the entire volume of the disc material," GE explains. "Holograms, or three-dimensional patterns that represent bits of information, are written into the disc at controlled depths, and can then be read out." Storage capacity is greater than what is currently available because the holographic discs use the entire volume of the disc material.

GE's latest success is an improvement to its 2009 material, which could store 500 gigabytes of data in a standard DVD-size disc. Ultimately, the company's researchers aim to develop micro-holographic discs that are able to store more than 1,000 gigabytes, equivalent to one terabyte of data.

What does this all mean? Future discs that feature this holographic material could change consumer and archival entertainment systems, as micro-holographic discs using GE's proprietary material will read and record on systems very similar to a typical Blu-ray or DVD player. "With a speed to match Blu-ray's, discs made from GE's advanced micro-holographic materials are an attractive solution for both archival and consumer entertainment systems," Peter Lorraine, manager of the Applied Optics Lab at GE Global Research, said.

Heat-Regulating Building Material

A new material that can retain and release heat according to specific temperature requirements could have a significant effect on the costs of heating and cooling buildings. Researchers at the University of Nottingham last month announced the development of an innovative heat-storing material that overcomes the problem of how to release its energy quickly.

Researchers at the university's Centre for Sustainable Energy Technologies say their "novel non-deformed energy storage phase change material (PCM) has the unique advantage of possessing a larger energy storage capacity with faster thermal response than existing materials and could be cheaply manufactured."

The material can "be fixed" so that it absorbs excess heat above a required temperature, the university explains. While the physical material resembles a circular tablet, it can be fabricated in various shapes and sizes and may be used in either existing buildings or new construction structures. Project leader and CSET director Professor Jo Darkwa, while not specific about the formula, revealed to The Engineer that the material includes a metallic component, a second material and an adhesive.

The new heat-regulating material can be manufactured cheaply and has the potential of delivering considerable energy savings. It could also lead to more efficient LED lights and solar panels, and reduce the cost and energy use of air conditioning by absorbing heat from a room.

Sun-Free Photovoltaic Material

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new photovoltaic energy-conversion system using photovoltaic materials that do not require sunlight. "A novel way of engineering the surface of a material to convert heat into precisely tuned wavelengths of light — selected to match the wavelengths that photovoltaic cells can best convert to electricity — makes the new system much more efficient than previous versions," an MIT announcement explains.

Recently described in the journal Physical Review A, at the core of the material's surface are billions of nanoscale pits that radiate energy at precisely tuned wavelengths of light when the material absorbs heat, which can come from "the sun, hydrocarbon fuel, a decaying radioisotope or any other source," according to MIT.

Based on this technology, MIT researchers have created a butane-powered, button-sized power generator that can run three times longer than a lithium-ion battery of the same weight. The device can be recharged instantly by "snapping in a tiny cartridge of fresh fuel."

The conversion system is a breakthrough because similar systems often produce extra heat, resulting in low efficiency. Ultimately, the precisely tuned wavelengths at a scaled-down size means a high-efficiency system.

"With a bit more work, the research team at MIT is pretty sure they can triple their current level of efficiency, and since you can scale all this stuff down, MIT sees a photoelectric generator that can power your smartphone for a solid week being made a reality in the near future," DVICE reports.

"Invisible" Metamaterial

In collaboration with scientists at the University College of London, Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Institute of Microelectronics of Singapore, researchers at Columbia Engineering School have built "optical nanostructures that enable them to engineer the index of refraction and fully control light dispersion," according to Science Blog. "This is the first time simultaneous phase and zero-index observations have been made on the chip-scale and at the infrared wavelength."

"In this case, the Columbia scientists 'sculpted' a cascading series of nanostructures (a nano is one billionth of a meter) that are smaller than light waves," Clean Technica explains. "The result is a material that reverses what you would normally expect when light passes through a substance."

"We can now control the flow of light, the fastest thing known to us," Chee Wei Wong, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia and the team leader, said. "This can enable self-focusing light beams, highly directive antennas, and even potentially an approach to cloak or hide objects, at least in the small-scale or a narrow band of frequencies currently."

The metamaterial, discussed in a study published in the journal Nature Photonics last month, may find its way into various applications, such as fiber-optic telecommunications, and consumer devices.

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