In his incredibly fascinating book Loonshots, Safi Bahcall discusses how serendipity plays a role in most big inventions. This aspect is even more accentuated in the field of material science. As this piece by Neil Savage in Nature shows, humans have always explored the different properties of various materials available on the planet to solve a real world problem or make the world a better place – from vulcanised rubber in automobiles to silicon in electronics to rare earth for reusable batteries to plastics in pretty much everything we use.
“The hunt for new, commercially viable materials with highly sought-after properties is one of the most competitive pursuits in scientific research. It offers clear applications, strong paths to market and is among the most interdisciplinary of the physical-sciences research fields. Even so, relatively few discoveries, such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and, to a lesser extent, graphene, rise above the throng of nascent materials; many languish in the scientific literature.
The stakes are high: a new material in the right place and at the right time can launch a multibillion-dollar industry. Consider what happened for Charles Goodyear. When he mixed sulfur with natural rubber and invented vulcanized rubber in 1839, his discovery gave rise to a multitude of new rubber products with unprecedented tensile strength and elasticity. It advanced the automobile industry, freeing motorists from unwieldy iron wheels. With the smoother ride offered by rubber tyres came the impetus to create the first gas-powered cars. More recently, global industries producing smartphones, wearable medical devices, renewable energy and new aeroplanes have emerged from materials science research.”
Material science projects inherently have a long gestation, which means that any pursuit to discover materials to solve current problems will likely take years if not decades given time taken for discovery and then the bigger challenge of commercialisation for industrial use. Indeed, the converse is equally true as materials discovered today to have certain unique properties may not have a corresponding real world application for years to come.
“It can take decades for a new material to have an impact. The worldwide market for OLEDs reached US$19.45 billion in 2017, and is expected to grow to $81.76 billion by 2026. But, the OLEDS in your TV are a world away from the first experiments in the late 1950s to generate light from organic materials.
Stephen Forrest, a physicist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who invented phosphorescent OLEDs, is well aware of that. … “The technologies that we had [at launch] were not particularly compelling to the market,” Forrest says. “Things happened both within the marketplace and within our lab and it sort of exploded, and now we have a $20-billion global display market based on OLEDs, and every one of them use our materials.”
…Companies often say it takes at least 10 years for a material to move from the laboratory to the market, says Zhenan Bao, a chemical engineer at Stanford University in California who works with nanomaterials and flexible electronics, including organic semiconductors and carbon-based circuits. In 2010, Bao’s lab spun out C3 Nano, a company that makes a flexible, transparent electrode based on silver nanowires. It’s being used in some foldable displays and mobile phones available in China, she says, and may soon spread elsewhere. Since she was at Bell Labs (now owned by Nokia) 20 years ago, she has been working on foldable displays that could fit more phone screen in a given space.
…Graphene could be an important component of the necessary flexible electronics for Bao’s electronic skins. Its unique properties have excited scientists since the material was first isolated in 2004. A one-atom-thick layer of carbon, graphene is stronger than diamond, has the highest electron mobility of any known material, and is more than 97% transparent to wavelengths of light from the ultraviolet to the far infrared. Those properties could come in handy, but so far, no one has come up with an application that has had much of an impact in the marketplace. Grand View Research estimates the global market for graphene was only $43 million in 2017, mainly in applications such as protective coatings for flexible electronics.”
Artificial intelligence is helping us out here as well. Algorithms that parse decades of research to match a current need are being used to address this temporal challenge in material science.
“Machine-learning techniques are being used to comb through published research to unearth materials already discovered but forgotten, and to predict the properties of new materials that don’t yet exist. This replaces the trial-and-error approaches the field has relied on. According to James Warren, a physicist at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in a very dynamic field it’s one of the most exciting developments in recent years.
Warren is director of the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI), a multi-agency project set up by the US government in 2011. The database of materials and their properties is open and available to researchers, to help move those materials from journal pages into potential products, says Warren. “The whole point of MGI is literally to bridge that gap,” he says.
In just a few years, he says, it may be possible to tell a computer that you want to build a battery with a certain storage capacity, lifetime and cost, and have it suggest the optimal combination of materials to make it happen.”

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