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What Advancements in Material Sciences Have Been Made That No One Is Talking About?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.


Science is moving at an aggressive pace. Oftentimes, it’s too fast for anyone to keep up with, and so some new findings and applications fall between the cracks. Here is but a few of them. It is my intent to update this list as more are uncovered, so check in every once and a while for what I hope you too will find to be an advancement in materials that no one is talking about.

Spinning Sponges

Water is simply amazing. It destroys, it creates, and it is what you and I are mostly made of. To further demonstrate the amazing abilities of water, scientists at Columbia University led by Ozgur Sahin have developed an evaporation powered 100 grams car. Yes, it’s small and not very fast but it is a prototype and the process for its locomotion is amazing. It makes use of 100 “spore coated tapes,” each 4 inches long, which expand and contract as levels of H20 in the air change. A chamber full of the special paper hangs from rings of concentric circles and is wettened, increasing the length of the tape. Half of the ring at any time is enclosed while the other half is exposed to air, allowing evaporation. Now, here is the magic. The wet paper has a center of mass and so does the dry paper, but as evaporation occurs, the center of torque begins to shift so that the two are not in alignment. Add to this the paper curling inward as it dries and you have a further net torque change. As this spin occurs, a rubber band attached to the pivot axis spins and…voila, a vehicle is the result! While no one will be rushing to the store to get one, it could have applications in micromachinery (Tenning, Ornes).

Stretching for Electricity

Certain plastics have their strength being the defining property, or their versatility. But some have piezoelectric capabilities, or of discharging a current when physically altered. Research from Walter Voit (UT Dallas) and Shashank Priya (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) has led to the development of polyvinylidene fluoride augmented by buckyballs and carbon nanotubes, effectively doubling the piezoelectric effect already present in the material. Interestingly, the material acts much like a muscle does, contracting and relaxing in a similar way when under an electric current. By utilizing this effect in passive processes, energy harvesting could become even more interesting (Bernstein).

Flat Lens?

One of the technological battles comparable to increasing processor speeds in a computer is the need for a thinner and thinner lens. Many technology fields would benefit from an even lower curvature lens, of which Frederico Capasso and his team at Harvard University accomplished in 2012. They were able to make “microscopic silicon ridges” which caused light to bend in a certain way, depending on the angle of incident. In fact, based on the placement of the ridges you could conceivably get many focal length possibilities. However, the ridges only allow for one wavelength to have high precision, not suitable for any everyday means. But advancements are being made, for in February 2015 the same team was able to get at least some RGB wavelengths to happen at once (Patel "The").

Membrane Manufacturing for Desalination

Believe it or not, Alan Turing of World War II code-breaking and computer logic fame also made a contribution to chemistry. He found an interesting system that is more complex than the typical products/reactants. Certain situations that control the amount of the reactants can lead to products with different features. Applying this to membrane production allowed for a more regulated and controlled pattern than the typical water/organic method gave but allowed for holes that could allow contaminants through. In this Turing-style system, the polymer was mixed with an organic solvent while the chemical that starts the membrane formation was mixed with water and another chemical which reduces the reaction was mixed in another solvent. This water reduced the reaction and based on the amount present one can get dots or even stripes, allowing for better desalination processes (Timmer)

Building a Greener Plastic

Traditional plastics are made from butadiene whose origins can be traced back to petroleum. Not exactly a sustainable material. But thanks to research from the University of Delaware, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Massachusetts, a new route to butadiene production can arise from vegetative materials instead. It all starts with sugars based from biomass sources. These sugars were transformed into furfural which was then converted to tetrahydeofuran. With the aid of a “’phosphorous all-silica zeolite,’” the tetrahydeofuran was then altered to become butadiene via a “’dehyrda-decyclization”’ process. The typical yield of butadiene from the biomass was about 95%, making this a viable alternative to environmentally unfriendly sources (Bothum).


Many advancements are made in high-caliber laboratories with a large amount of funding to back it up. So, imagine when Brad Musselman, a senior at Knox College in Galesburg, submitted an honors project entitled, “Axial Site Reactivity of Multilinear Copper (II) Carboxylate Metalomesogens.” Sounds fun enough, no? It is, for a major advancement in a field that had been around since the 60s was achieved. Metalomesogens are liquid crystals that also have some solid properties but sadly fall apart easily when making compounds out of them. Brad played with the levels of sipper, caprolactam (a nylon ancestor), and a solvent in the hopes of providing the right conditions. These things added to the mix as it was heated produced a color change from blue to brown in the solution that hinted to Brad that the right conditions for the metalomesogen transformation was taking place and so to continue that, some toluene would be added. Once cooled, crystals would form and x-ray diffraction and infrared spectroscopy would later confirm the material was as desired. Such materials can possibly have applications in synthezation of different compounds and reduce waste materials that are often encountered in many industries (Chozen).





Re-Writable Paper

Imagine lining standard stock paper with a nano particle layering consisting of Prussian blue and titanium dioxide. When this is hit with UV light, electrons exchange between those layers and causes the blue to become white. With a filter on top of this, one could print blue text onto the white paper and within a span of 5 days it will disappear as the paper becomes blue again. Then hit it with UV and voila, white paper again. The best part is that the process can be replicated on the same piece of paper up to 80 times (Peplow).

Building from Black Plastics

Now, recycling plastics is a huge environmental push for people to do but oftentimes we have some plastics which cannot be constituted from this. That is because of the high refinement in plastic formulas, making some easier to reuse than others. Take the plastics often found in meat packaging from grocery stores. Their molecular formula isn’t conducive to traditional recycling methods and so more often than not it is simply thrown away. But research by Dr. Alvin Orbaek White (Energy Safety Research Institute) has shown how to not only reuse the plastic but transform it into carbon nanotubing, a highly versatile property with great strength and conductivity properties, both thermal and electrical. The team was able to extract the carbon stored in the plastics and then scaffold it into a nanotube configuration. With such a reuse for a material possible, other potential chemical reroute could be explored too (Purchase).

Polymer Water Purification

Scientists have developed a new filter for water purification that is based off...sugar. Called Beta-cyclodextrin, it is the polymer from which new chains have been built that loop together and retain their porous nature while increasing surface area, leading to purification speeds 15-300 times that of the competition and was able to purify more. And the cost? Matching if not lower than what is out there. Sounds to me like we got a winner (Saxena).

The Ultimate Waterproof Metal

Scientists have developed a metal that is so resistant to water that is bounces off it like a rubber ball. The trick to manufacturing it involves etching different micro and nanoscale designs onto brass, titanium, and platinum at a rate of 1 square inch an hour. The advantages of this process include durability and one of the best water-resistant materials seen yet (Cooper-White).

Works Cited

Bernstein, Michael. “Novel plastic could spur new green energy applications, ‘artificial muscles.’” Innovations-report.com. innovations report, 26 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2019.

Bothum, Peter. “Researchers invent process to make sustainable rubber, plastics.” Innovations-report.com. innovations report, 25 Apr. 2017. Web. 22 Oct. 2019.

Cooper-White. "Scientists Male Metal So Waterproof That Droplets Simply Bounce Off." Huffingtonpost.com. Huffington Post, 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 Aug. 2018.

Chozen, Pam. “Unpacking an Honors Project.” Knox College Spring 2016: 19-24.

Giller, Geoffrey. “Solar Tries Two.” Scientific American Apr. 2015: 27. Print.

Ornes, Stephen. “Spore Power.” Discover Apr. 2016: 14. Print.

---. “The Lens Descends.” Scientific American May 2015: 22. Print.

Peplow, Mark. "Print, Wipe, Rewrite." Scientific American Jun. 2017. Print. 16.

Purchase, Delyth. “Research shows black plastics could create renewable energy.” Innovations-report.com. innovations report, 17 Jul. 2019. Web. 04 Mar. 2020.

Saxena, Shalini. "Reusable, sugar-based polymer purifies water fast." arstechnica.com. Conte Nast., 01 Jan. 2016. Web. 22 Aug. 2018.

Tenning, Maria. “Water, Water, Everywhere.” Scientific American Sept. 2015: 26. Print.

Timmer, John. "Alan Turing’s chemistry hypothesis turned into a desalination filter." arstechnica.com. Conte Nast., 05 May 2018. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

© 2018 Leonard Kelley

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