From swimsuits and coffee cups to quantum computers and medicines, materials science – the “middle of the Venn diagram between chemistry, engineering, and physics” – enables all the products, substances, and general ‘stuff’ with which we interact every day.
But what makes for a good material? What makes a material ‘smart’, for that matter? And, while new, more advanced materials can help to power industries far into the future, at what cost do we make them more complex, and less degradable?
Joining us in our ‘materials’ episode of Create the Future are materials experts Anna Ploszajski, materials scientist and research fellow at the Institute of Making at University College London; and Tim Minshall, Professor of Innovation and Head of the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge.
People often associate engineering with bridges and buildings, but, in fact, engineering is all around us. From sustainable coffee cups and people-powered pavements to new medical technologies, quantum computers, and the internet of things, there is a huge range of engineering wonders that we encounter in our day-to-day. The sheer variety of these innovations never fails to amaze me, but two of my favourites are an incredible paint called Inesfly, and a videogame called MalariaSpot. Both of these – while entirely unknown to most – save thousands of lives from insect-borne diseases every year.
Heart attacks (myocardial infarctions) are the leading cause of death worldwide. They result in more than 2.4 million deaths per year in the US, more than 4 million deaths in Europe and North Asia, and one-third of total deaths in developing countries. Heart attacks can be difficult to treat – effective surgical care for heart attacks requires transdisciplinary collaboration – but there are, nonetheless, treatments available. One such treatment is to apply a cardiac patch, a structure that replaces or assists damaged tissue before the entire organ is affected. A new viscoelastic patch, recently developed through collaborative efforts between clinicians and engineers, demonstrates promising results for future cardiac therapies.
3D printing optoelectronic devices directly into curved structures could create a new paradigm for ocular prosthetics.
Today, optoelectronic devices such as LEDs and light receptors (photodiodes) are everywhere, ranging in application from mobile phone screens and energy-efficient lighting to large digital display panels and image sensors. These devices – which convert electrical energy into light or vice versa– transmit a substantial amount of visual information. Made using the same techniques used to make computer chips, optoelectronic devices similarly get smaller and smaller as technology evolves, eventually coming into closer contact with human bodies (the now-omnipresent smartwatch, for instance). With this increasing proximity comes an increasing role in our lives; where we currently rely on wearable sensing and therapeutic devices to monitor our health, routine use of smart prosthetics in our skin, tissues, and organs is fast becoming a reality.
Researchers at Colorado State University have developed a way to detect low levels of antibodies in a person’s blood – potentially allowing the individual to get treatment before they even feel sick. Brian Geiss, a senior researcher in the project, explores the possibilities of such a point-of-care diagnostic below.
“The world is becoming a smaller place” has become a bit of a cliché, but it does have a kernel of truth to it. I can be sitting on my porch in Colorado drinking coffee in the morning, and 12 hours later be having a sushi lunch in Tokyo. The movement of people, goods, and materials all over the world has become so fast and efficient that anything and anyone can get to any part of the world in less than 36 hours. Compared to just 100 years ago, our society has gone from relatively isolated independent countries to a robust interconnected network with constant flow between nodes.
With just over a week left for this year’s Create the Trophy competition and the announcement rapidly coming up in February, hear from the newest member of the judging panel, Zoe Laughlin, about her background and her thoughts on engineering and design.
Human beings, on average, suffer from the unfortunate propensity to overlook many of the significant objects, issues, and phenomena around them – passing them by as they go about their day. There may be something groundbreaking right before you, but there’s every chance that you won’t actually notice it. This is an especially unfortunate penchant when it comes to solving global problems; the solutions may be right before us, but we often fail to them.
Take the world’s growing energy requirements as an example – with each passing year, the number of power-hungry technologies grows. With it, the need to produce more energy similarly inflates, and yet with our focus based on the technologies, we spend less time looking for sustainable solutions.
Architecture has been borrowing from Mother Nature for millennia. The first structures were made from natural materials; wood, straw, stone and soils. Many common objects that we use today are inspired by plant life too – burdock burs inspired George de Mestral to invent Velcro in 1955, and wind turbines are inspired by the fins of humpback whales!
Today, as engineers face the issues caused by climate change and high energy consumption, they are drawing on nature again to change the way we build our homes and offices.