Materials for the 21st Century

Mark Miodownik gazes inquisitively at the contents of a small beaker.

Categories: Materials

2 March 2016


The Ancient Egyptians used glass only for decoration and ornamentation, and couldn’t have known that the material would provide the platform for the inventions of modern physics, chemistry, biology, and much more. Even the Romans, who were great innovators in glass, and invented the glass window, didn't predict how important the material would be.

It was the invention of the glass lens that turned out to be crucial for the birth of science; leading to the evolution of astrophysics and biology, through the development of tools such as the telescope and the microscope. Other innovations in glass had huge impacts as well, including the advance of borosilicate glass and the test tube; without which the subject of chemistry would essentially not exist. In modern times, the glass optical fibre has revolutionised telecommunications, providing the backbone of the internet, without which, it would grind to a halt. Glass is just one of many influential materials that have played defining roles in our history.

Materials are not just the stuff we make things from; they are expressions of our needs and desires. Reinforced concrete, for instance, is an expression not just of our need for shelter from the elements, but of our desire for infrastructure that is cheap enough to benefit all. Half of everything made in 2015 was made of concrete. It is, by weight, easily mankind’s most popular material, underpinning all of our lives. Will we still be using it in 2050? Probably, because we will still need shelter and we will still want the creative architectural freedom the material gives us, but it is likely to be a version that is more sustainable, and heals itself.

By 2050 we will need to have worked out how to create sustainable cities, energy security, food security, and effective healthcare for a global population of ten billion people. New materials technologies will be key to achieving this. But there will be other important drivers of technology too, such as aesthetics. Walk around many science and engineering departments today, and you can easily convince yourself that there is no need for new fabrics, now that jeans and t-shirts have been invented. But this would be to ignore the importance of fashion. What makes us human is not just the physical materiality of our bodies; we are immaterial too, and have interior and emotional lives.

The material world, although separate, is not divorced from these worlds; it strongly influences them as anyone knows. Sitting on a couch affects our emotional state in a very different way than sitting on a metal stool. This is because, for humans, materials are not just functional. Early archaeological evidence shows that as soon as we developed tools, we were also creating decorative jewellery, pigments, art and clothing. These materials were developed for aesthetic and cultural reasons, and this has been a strong driver of materials technology throughout history (and has had unexpected impacts e.g. glass). Because of this strong connection between materials and their social role, the materials that we favour and the materials that we surround ourselves with are significant to us: they mean something, they embody our ideals, and they give us part of our identity.

We live in the dream world of past generations, literally a world they imagined into existence through the materials technology they engineered. So what will we dream up next to bequeath to our children and grandchildren in 2050? Will bionic people with synthetic organs, bones and even brains become the norm? As we become more synthetic, will our man-made environment change to become more lifelike so that living buildings and objects that heal-themselves become the norm in 2050? My prediction is yes. If you want to know why, read this.

Text adapted from Miodownik, M. (2015). Materials for the 21st century: What will we dream up next?. MRS Bulletin, 40 (12), 1188-1197. doi:10.1557/mrs.2015.267

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