By Markus Buehler, McAfee Professor of Engineering at MIT
When we talk about advances in materials science, the focus is typically on the materials themselves: how strong we can make this fabric, how light we can make the construction materials, how cheap we can manufacture better products than we have now.
But the benefits of materials science go far beyond performance. In fact, the field could lead to an “organic movement” of sorts for materials, similar to the movement toward organic foods that we have seen in recent decades.
In the world of food, organics are often seen as preferable for their perceived environmental and health benefits. Also, many people who opt for organic foods make an additional effort to “eat local,” consuming in-season products that are grown near where they live as a way to support their local communities and create more resilient supply chains.
Advances in materials science can help product designers to achieve similar benefits.
Virtually every industry today relies, in some way, on relatively cheap fossil fuels. But as climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, and businesses potentially have to pay for the adverse environmental impacts of their operations, we’re going to see more and more companies searching for sustainable alternatives to their current approach. (Many people don’t realize that around 8% of the world’s carbon emissions are the result of concrete production, with around the same amount coming from the steel industry.)
In the wood industry, companies are starting to seek out greener methods of making particleboard. And makeup companies are looking to cosmetics practices from traditional cultures – using modern chemistry to try to replicate a more organic approach to production, rather than relying so heavily on petroleum and potentially toxic chemicals for their manufacturing processes.
There’s also growing interest in crops that will yield strong fibers that can be mixed into polymer, cement, steel or even plastic. Imagine a genetically engineered plant that provides nanoscopic fibers that strengthen materials. This could not only lead to lighter, thinner, stronger product components, but also to those parts being more environmentally sustainable.
Streamlined supply chains
As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, even the smallest disruptions to industrial supply chains can lead to enormous problems. The pandemic, which began with a widespread toilet paper shortage, eventually saw people hoarding dumbbells for resale and waiting months to buy a new car or bike.
These (relatively minor, all things considered) instances illustrate just how dependent we’ve become on complex, globe-encircling supply chains. One way to reduce this complexity and improve resilience is to depend more on locally sourced supplies that can be created using advances in materials science. The pandemic aside, there are a number of near-term reasons for companies to leverage materials science to insulate themselves against supply chain problems. For instance, a number of manufacturing processes are heavily dependent on rare earth-metals that are largely controlled by a handful of countries. A more streamlined supply chain also gives companies the flexibility to step away from existing partners in cases of global conflict, human rights abuses or other unpredictable events.
Often, materials science can help manufacturers to find workable substitutes for existing materials. If you’re unable to use Product A, for instance, you might be able to replicate it using a combination of Product X and Product Y, but it sometimes takes analysis on the molecular level to make these discoveries.
In recent years, there has been growing attention paid to the impacts that the built and manufactured environments have on human health. One obvious example is Bisphenol A (BPA), the clear, tough plastic that many retails have stopped using after questions were raised about the materials’ potential toxicity.
It’s important to note that, once upon a time, BPA was actually a win for materials science, given its properties as a material. This shift illustrates the importance of keeping human health impacts a top-of-mind concern during the materials development process. Advances in materials science are making it more and more practical for manufacturers to use plant-based materials in their products, in ways that are both functional and eco-friendly. Silk is a good example. Of course, silk is found in a number of different settings in nature, including among spiders and worms. Synthetic materials can sometimes have unpredictable health effects, whereas natural – or, “organic,” if you will – materials tend to be safer.
In recent years, it has become commonplace for businesses to talk about a “triple bottom line,” valuing not only their profits, but also their social and environmental impacts. By improving the performance of products – while also promoting environmental stewardship, responsible and resilient supply chains, and human health – materials science can help companies move toward this ideal.
Markus J. Buehler is the McAfee Professor of Engineering at MIT. Involved with startups, innovation and a frequent collaborator with industry, his research interest is to identify and apply innovative approaches to design better materials from less, using a combination of high-performance computing and AI, new manufacturing techniques, and advanced experimental testing. His recent book, Biomateriomics, presents a new paradigm for the analysis of bio-inspired materials and structures to devise new biomaterial platforms, and using a AI-based mathematical categorization approach that connects insights from disparate fields such as materials, structures to music and language. In addition to his regular teaching at MIT, he offers an annual professional education course, “Predictive Multiscale Materials Design”.