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Advancements in Materials Science

Advancements in Materials Science

Scientists working with binocular microscope in the material science lab

In the past few years, materials science has evolved rapidly as engineers and scientists have discovered new materials and applications for them. Materials scientists draw on chemistry, physics, engineering and other disciplines to understand the properties of existing materials, and they use interdisciplinary methods to develop advanced materials. These leading materials science breakthroughs have numerous uses in aerospace, manufacturing and other industries.1

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of jobs for materials engineers will increase by 5% between 2022 and 2032. Several trends have fueled this growing demand, including rising interest in sustainable materials and lightweight metal alloys for aircraft.2

Read on to explore some of the latest breakthroughs in materials science.

Understanding Materials Science

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory defines materials science as “an interdisciplinary field that incorporates chemistry, physics and engineering both to provide a deeper understanding of existing materials and to allow for the design of new materials with predetermined properties.”3

The development of new materials significantly affects daily life and helps communities and individuals overcome challenges. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, manufacturers used biocidal polymers to create virus-resistant masks for healthcare workers.4 Additionally, the chemical industry has addressed pollution by creating compostable bio-based plastics. The agriculture, electronics, energy and transportation industries have all used advanced materials to drive innovation.5

Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology

Nanomaterials refer to natural or human-made materials made of tiny particles measuring less than 100 nanometers. Each nanometer is one billionth of a meter, making most of these nanoscale materials invisible to the human eye and to viewing under lab microscopes.6

Nanomaterials have many applications across industries. Researchers use nanotechnology, for example, to create pharmaceuticals that target specific cancer cells and organs. Additionally, some nanomaterials bind to toxins, making them suitable for cleaning toxic waste in disaster remediation. Researchers have also used engineered nanomaterials to develop stronger, lighter-weight cloth and cement.6

While nanotechnology holds immense promise, it also raises ethical concerns and significant challenges. Researchers don’t fully understand the long-term effects of these materials on the environment and human health. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, even familiar materials such as silver can pose health risks when engineered down to nano size. We can inhale and ingest particles that small, and they can enter the body through the skin. Fibrous carbon nanomaterials have been known to cause swelling in the lungs, much as asbestos does.6 Scientists haven’t yet developed methods for detecting levels of nanoparticles in the air, which could mean that humans are vulnerable to unintentional, unsafe exposure.

Smart Materials and Their Applications

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), smart materials are “materials that remember different forms and are able to reconcile with different stimuli.”7 These materials have two components: a sensor that detects environmental changes and an actuator that responds to these stimuli.7

Shape memory alloys (SMAs) are one category of smart materials. These substances always return to their original shape, no matter how much they get deformed, stretched or heated. NASA uses SMAs to create adaptive aircraft wings that respond to environmental conditions and to develop lightweight actuators that react to heat and other stimuli.8

This materials science revolution has led scientists to develop self-healing and self-sustaining materials. The healthcare industry can use these substances to create electronic skin, device implants and wearable biosensors.7

Biomaterials and Green Technology

Advancements in materials science have included huge strides in sustainability and green technology. Engineers have designed biomaterials that interact with the human body and other biological systems. The healthcare industry uses these naturally occurring or synthetic polymers for medical devices, tissue engineering and other applications. Some of these materials are biodegradable, decreasing the amount of medical waste.9 Many in the medical field are researching the next level of biometric wearables, such as smart contact lenses.

Companies can also use biomaterials to create circular ecosystems. These systems reduce pollution and carbon emissions by ensuring that all materials get reused, repurposed or recycled. For example, the materials company Eastman recycles complex waste plastics into syngas—that is, synthesis gas—which it uses to produce acetic acid and other acetyls, which are building blocks for advanced materials, additives and fibers.5

Advanced Composites

Advanced composite materials combine two or more materials with different chemical or physical characteristics. Because they have unique properties, such as heat resistance, increased strength and lower weight, engineers can use them to develop advanced structures and technology.10 In automotive and aerospace applications, they can improve fuel efficiency and payload capacity.5

  • The aerospace industry uses carbon fiber, fiberglass and other advanced composites to build stronger, more lightweight aircraft
  • The automotive sector uses carbon fiber to produce faster, more fuel-efficient, lighter-weight vehicles such as racecars5
  • The renewable energy industry uses advanced composites to create longer, lighter turbine blades for windmills; these innovative blades respond to changing wind speeds more efficiently than traditional ones, allowing each windmill to harness more energy from the wind11

3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing

3D printing is a subtype of additive manufacturing that has revolutionized manufacturing. This process involves layering or printing blocks of raw material to produce three-dimensional objects. 3D printing enables designers to create highly customizable products, such as automotive parts.12

The medical industry uses 3D printing to create medical devices tailored to the recipient’s unique anatomy. Patients can receive 3D-printed cranial implants, dental crowns, prosthetic limbs and other devices.12

Energy Storage and Materials

Materials science has pioneered new technologies for energy storage. For example, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory are developing solid-state batteries with more storage capacity than traditional batteries. They’re also working to scale solid-state electrolyte materials to make their batteries more cost-effective.13

In particular, the advent of affordable solar energy systems has sparked a significant interest in renewable energy storage solutions. These technologies not only promise to enhance the efficiency and reliability of renewable energy sources but also pave the way for widespread adoption of green energy. By enabling households to store surplus energy generated during peak production times, these storage solutions ensure a steady supply of power, even during inclement weather.

Research and Development of Advanced Materials

Many materials engineers work in research and development laboratories.14 Prominent research institutions include NASA, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory,15 and the U.S. Department of Energy Materials Sciences and Engineering Division.16

Research in materials science is often highly collaborative. Materials engineers work in teams with scientists and engineers from other subfields to create innovative materials with new properties and develop interdisciplinary solutions to complex problems.14

Additionally, the federal government offers grants and other support for companies and researchers developing material advancements. For instance, the National Science Foundation provides seed funding for novel advanced materials and materials systems. BioMASON used this grant to invent biologically-based bricks with a smaller carbon footprint than traditional clay-based bricks.17 lists many other grants that support the development of advanced materials.18

Shape the Future of Materials Science

Case Western Reserve University’s online MS in Mechanical Engineering program empowers you with the knowledge and skills you need to become an innovative leader in materials science. Led by a faculty of experts, this practice-oriented program flexes around your full-time job, family responsibilities and social life, empowering you to study on your schedule from any location.

Don’t wait to gain the qualifications that can advance your career. Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor today.

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