When developing new products – or improving existing ones – researching alternative materials can be a significant source of innovation.
Sometimes the advances come from putting well-known materials to use in a novel way. In other cases, the material itself is the innovation, making entirely new products and solutions possible.
Here are three different materials that could change how products are developed in many categories. While they’re all still in development, they offer some exiting perspectives for future products.
A metal lighter than styrofoam
When producing airplanes, it’s obviously relevant to research new materials that can help save weight and add structural integrity. For Boeing and R&D-partner HRL that quest has turned out Microlattice: A metal that weighs less than styrofoam and is nearly as strong as titanium.
The material is constructed as an open cellular structure; a lattice made of hollow, interconnected tubes with extremely thin walls. The principle resembles the structure of our bones; hollow in the middle but still strong and very lightweight. The structure of Microlattice is 99.99 % air.
With its low weight and potential use in structural reinforcement and shock absorption, the material could very well become an important component in not just future airplanes but also cars and other consumer products.
A glue that hardens with voltage
Most superglues harden when they’re exposed to high heat, come into contact with moist in the air, or as they are mixed with other chemicals. Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has managed to engineer a glue that works very differently: It hardens only when electric voltage is applied to it.
The objective for the researchers was to create an adhesive that isn’t affected by the environment around it – eg. water or heat. But Voltaglue, as the new adhesive is called, offers another exciting feature: The more voltage applied to the glue, the harder it gets, allowing for customized applications. For some uses, like repairing a hole in a boat in the water, you’ll want to the glue to get harder, whereas usage in for example medical applications will call for a softer, more rubber-like state.
Voltaglue is now being researched further, with the researchers looking for a way to undo the hardening process by applying an electrical shock. A strong, reversible glue could mean new ways to assemble – and dissemble – products from cars to smartphones, allowing for easier repairs, maintenance, or recycling at the end of the product’s life.
A material that heals itself in a second
Different concepts and technologies for self-healing materials have been researched for years; and recently, NASA and Michigan University demonstrated how a new material from their labs is able to heal itself from a hole made by a bullet in just about a second.
The material is based on two layers of polymer with a liquid in between. When the liquid is exposed to oxygen – for example when the material is punctured by a bullet – it hardens, thus plugging the hole. The principles behind the research – and testing with bullets – is explained in more detail by NASA in this video.
What sets this material apart from other research is particularly the speed at which it’s able to heal. That has been a key objective at NASA – if your spacecraft is punctured, you’ll obviously want the hole to get plugged really fast. And while the material still needs further development, it also has some very interesting potential applicants back here on earth: From airplane hulls to fuel tanks and cars, to mention just a few obvious examples.