One of our most popular blog posts has been our Top 10 amazing materials post from 2015, so we thought it was time for a refresh.
We put our award-winning Emma Hartley on the case to find the most innovative materials out there.
Vegan leather may sound ethical, but synthetic leathers are usually plastic based, which come with their own environmental issues. Introducing pineapple leather – a totally sustainable, natural ‘leather’ made from waste plant fibres, rather than cows, or the oil industry. The fibres used to create the pineapple leather are by-products of the pineapple harvest, which means no extra land, water, fertilisers or pesticides are required, and it gives a new additional income for pineapple farmers.
Another by-product, this time of the fishing industry, chitosan is a sugar that can be extracted from the shells of crabs, shrimps and other shellfish. Its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties give many uses, from medical, health, dental and pharmacology fields.
When chitosan is blended with viscose fibres, it creates an antibacterial, antimicrobial textile that prevents odour and is gentle on the skin for people with sensitive skin or issues such as eczema. Because the chitosan is structurally bound, rather than a coating, it means the fabric keeps its antibacterial properties permanently, even after washing the fabric.
On this list just has to be graphene. There are too many reasons to list, but we’ll name a few of the amazing applications we have come across.
MIT researchers compressed and fused graphene flakes into a sponge-like configuration that has a density of 5%, and is 200 times stronger than steel. Graphene has been used to create transparent and flexible solar cells, and graphene nanotubes have been used to create a new generation of batteries. Rice University have now been able to create graphene out of wood, which is abundant and renewable, meaning it can help in the growing electronics waste problem. And this laser-induced graphene has been found to be antibacterial, and these properties can be increased by adding electricity, which has huge promise for hospital, ocean, oil-drilling and water treatment applications.
Take a look at what they are doing with Graphene at Manchester University.
Superhydrophobic coatings are a nanoscopic layer that can be applied to repel water. Just sounds like a waterproof coat? Watch this!
Braeon is a polymer ribbon that claims that it is the lightest, strongest and most adaptable material that’s ever been invented. High-strength polymeric fibers are bonded into a thermoplastic, and it can be heated to mould into a variety of shapes. A single ribbon can withstand over 2,500 pounds of pull strength – it was even used to tow a 5000 pound truck up a 30 degree hill! Move over Gaffer Tape!
Check out their successful Kickstarter campaign.
Oil absorbing sponge
Everyone knows oil spills are problematic when it comes to cleaning up - remember the photos of all the sad seagulls from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident? The problem with oil spills is that oil not only collects on the surface, but it can also drift under the water.
Scientists have created a sponge-like material that can absorb 90 times its weight in oil – and amazingly, it can be wrung out and used again and again for over 100 times! The structure of the sponge means it can pull oil from the entire water column, not just the surface, meaning easier clean up and less environmental impact.
Power generating textiles
The need for sustainable energy sources is real, and researchers around the world are looking at small-scales ways they can do this – including power generating textiles. Researchers have created textiles that generate energy from solar-cells, and from triboelectric generation – this means it generate electricity when it experiences friction. These microcables were woven into textiles which could be used for clothing, curtains or even tents. Imagine being able to charge your phone whilst walking to work!
Metamaterials are man-made composites, that have a structure that is not usually found in natural materials. Researchers from the University of Michigan have developed a new metamaterial that can change the stiffness of its surface again and again, without altering or damaging the material. This material could be used in the cars of the future – cars need to be stiff and support the weight of the car and passengers, but in a crash, soft materials will absorb impact and protect the passengers, potentially saving lives.
3D printing technology has many incredible uses in the medical field. BioInks are printed layer-by-layer to create structures that wouldn’t be possible in any traditional method – specialised meshes and foams can be used to house stem cells to grow all manner of cells. Organs, bone stents, and pieces of skull can all be printed, individually shaped and crafted for each patient.
Self-healing materials are made up of microcapsules that contain a glue-like chemical that can repair any damage to itself. When the material is cut, these microcapsules burst, and the cracks seal themselves up.
Shear thickening materials
Shear thickening materials behave like a liquid, until an object impacts it and causes shear stress. The material then hardens in a few milliseconds, making it then act like a solid. Kevlar uses this technology. The Kevlar is soaked in a shear thickening fluid, so the Kevlar fabric is flexible when not under stress. Then, when something impacts it (like a bullet!) it solidifies and dramatically increases the strength of the piece of armour, protecting the wearer.
Or you can feel like you're running on water - like these guys!
We're always on the look out for new businesses that want to push the boundaries of what's possible. If you've got a product design that needs our support get in touch. Or if you've created the next generation of innovative materials we can help you finance your project with our R&D tax relief service.