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(Nature) One of the greatest drivers of materials research today is its potential economic impact. And yet it is a sad fact that many materials science concepts developed in research laboratories will never become a commercial reality. Why is that? And what could be done to improve the commercial prospects of new materials? Answers to these questions may be found by venturing into the world of arts and consulting with social scientists. There are an increasing number of opportunities to explore these interfaces. One such opportunity was the inaugural Inspiring Matter conference held at the Royal College of Art in London in April. Artists, product designers, architects, scientists and social scientists provided insights into their involvement with the development and application of new materials. For example, Mike Davies, an architect known for his work on the Millennium Dome and the Pompidou Centre, proposed his vision of the future of buildings with biomimetic skins that respond to the environment, can harvest energy, and can understand and respond to the needs and moods of their inhabitants. And Bradley Quinn, a trend forecaster, presented new clothing concepts inspired by self-assembly, light- and heat-responsive materials and aerosol technology (spray-on clothing—see image above). Although some of these ideas might seem far-fetched, they reveal how, unconstrained by scientific trends or perceived limitations, potential new applications and commercial opportunities could be opened up by artistic and scientifically creative minds working together. Not only that, but art itself could benefit from artists increasing their knowledge of new materials and processes, as Nature Materials has explored previously.
(Physics) Running a finger over an irregular object is a good way to gauge its shape. In 1986, three scientists built a device to do essentially the same thing at the atomic level and published their results in Physical Review Letters. Using a tiny diamond stylus, their atomic force microscope traced out a surface with better than nanometer resolution. The device caught on quickly and with further improvements became a widely used laboratory tool for mapping surfaces with molecular precision, even for biological samples. In 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of the IBM Research Laboratory in Zurich invented the scanning tunneling microscope. In this instrument, a sharp metal point, or “tip,” is held just above the surface of an object, close enough that a voltage induces a small current to flow across the gap between tip and surface through the phenomenon of quantum mechanical tunneling. If the tip, as it traverses an object, is moved up and down so as to keep the tunneling current fixed, its movements record the topography of the object’s surface. The earliest results had subnanometer resolution, enough to show surface features with single-atom dimensions; modern STMs can do much better. However, the STM can only scan objects that conduct electricity.
As demand increases for lithium, the essential element in batteries for everything from cameras to automobiles, a researcher at Missouri University of Science and Technology is studying potential disruptions to the long-term supply chain the world’s lightest metal. Although the current dominant battery type for hybrid electric vehicles is nickel metal hydride, lithium-ion battery technology is considered by many to be the “power source of choice for sustainable transport,” says Ona Egbue, a doctoral student in engineering management. “Lithium batteries are top choices for high-performance rechargeable battery packs,” Egbue says. “Batteries make up 23 percent of lithium use and are the fastest growing end use of lithium.” The US is a major importer of lithium. The majority of known lithium reserves are located in China, Chile, Argentina and Australia. Together these regions were also responsible for more than 90 percent of all lithium production in 2010, not including U.S. production. “More than 90 percent of lithium reserves – what is economically feasible to extract – are in just four countries,” Egbue says. “The geopolitical dynamics of this distribution of lithium supplies has largely been ignored.”
Thanks to developments in 3D printing technology, Beauty the Bald Eagle has a new beak and a new lease on life. The bird, who was shot in the face by a poacher in 2005, was rescued by Jane Fink Cantwell of Birds of Prey Northwest. Thanks to Nate Calvin of Kinetic Engineering Group, Beauty can use her new polymer prosthetic to feed herself, preen, and drink. Working with Nate Calvin from the Boise tech company, Kinetic Engineering Group, Birds of Prey Northwest has helped to restore a classic American symbol to her former glory. Using the 3D CAD software, SolidWorks, KEG was able to model the new beak with the input of a number of wildlife experts.