The 20th and 21st centuries have brought some outstanding discoveries and inventions that have revolutionized how humans live and interact with the world — and most of that is thanks to material science. You can point to nearly anything in your house and be certain that it wouldn’t exist without the hard work and tireless innovation of material science engineers.
Yet, despite their incredible impact on the development of civilization, advancements in material science and material processing remain largely unsung. To rectify that wrong — and to celebrate another year of excellent work in material science — here are the seven most amazing developments in materials (from finding to processing) in recent history:
1. Carbon Fiber–Reinforced Plastics
Carbon fiber–reinforced plastics are exceedingly stiff and strong while remaining lightweight, facilitating their use in almost all industries, from aviation and aerospace to sport to packaging and transportation. Unlike previous composite materials, which had amorphous glass fibers which limited strength and stability, carbon fibers feature long, oriented aromatic molecular chains in a polymer matrix. The development of carbon fiber–reinforced plastics has moved component design to materials design, dramatically enhancing performance while reducing cost.
2. Lithium Ion Batteries
Before mobile devices could take off, battery tech needed much improvement. Enter: lithium ion batteries, which are portable, rechargeable, and environmentally benign. The breakthrough with lithium ion batteries was the development of a lightweight framework structure that included free volume to allow lithium ions to move in and out with high mobility. Using LiCoO2 as the cathode material and combining it with a carbon anode, material scientists developed the first lithium ion batteries in the early 1990s.
3. Semiconductor Lasers
Laser technology continues to progress, making lasers more applicable to everyday life. When lasers were first used in material processing, they relied on a complex system of gas ventilation and single-use optics, making them too expensive for most applications. Later, innovations in material science allowed for solid-state lasers, which eliminated most of the costly equipment and maintenance while increasing power and control. Today, nearly everyone has used a laser in one form or another, from switching on LED lights to using CD and DVD players, to working laser processors to create 3M electronics.
4. Carbon Nanotubes
Compared to lithium ion batteries and lasers, carbon nanotubes are unknown — but they are some of the most exciting innovations in materials science. Nanoscale carbon structures have astounding mechanical, electrical, and thermal properties which promise improvements across industries, from bolstering systems in the gigahertz frequency band to honing sensitive mechanical sensors to offering ultra-sharp scanning probe microscopy tips, drug delivery vehicles, and more.
Further, carbon nanotubes could contribute to advances in composite materials, perhaps helping to develop an even better carbon fiber plastic in the future.
5. Scanning Probe Microscopes
The inventors of the scanning probe microscope won a Nobel Prize, and it was well-deserved. New microscopy techniques are uncommon but exceedingly valuable for advancing understanding of the nanoscale world. Scanning probe microscopes allow researchers to probe the local properties of a sample directly while maintaining nanometer resolution. Undoubtedly, this allowed nanotechnology to shoot forward, increasing material science abilities at this scale.
6. Soft Lithography
Lithography is an ancient process, and soft lithography — though a modern, advanced technique in material science — is founded upon the ancient concept of stamps to reproduce patterns again and again. Through the process of soft lithography, material scientists can perform microcontact printing, stamping molecules in well-defined patterns over large areas. Because soft lithography is inexpensive and flexible, it has revolutionized several fields within material science but none more than biotechnology, which relies on the microscale structures, organic materials, and polymers involved in this lithographic technique.
One of the most recent discoveries within material science — and one yet well-understood or applied — is that materials with negative refractive indexes exist. Even more astounding, it seems that this and other unique properties are the result not of the material’s composition but of its structure. In fact, by combining the study of structure to chemistry, material scientists can greatly increase the range of properties they can access, most notably those not found in nature. Artificial structures of repeated micro-sized elements were dubbed metamaterials, and their capabilities continue to be scrutinized today. Some metamaterial experts believe metamaterials could be used to form invisibility cloaks, proving that material science is indeed some kind of magic.