Keep an eye on these developments that are radically changing the future of consumer product design.
Hiring managers: Look for acuity in these areas as you source candidates for your materials engineering teams.
The “Miracle Material”
Graphene is a one-atom thick layer of carbon arranged in a honeycomb lattice. It was discovered in 2004 at England’s University of Manchester by physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who went on to demonstrate its remarkable conductive and resilient properties. Six years later, it won them a Nobel Prize in physics.
- Graphene is revolutionizing the way we understand matter. As noted by Geim, “It’s the strongest material we are aware of because you can’t slice it any further.” It’s stronger than diamonds and is a thousand times better than copper in terms of conductivity.
- Potential uses: Because of its high transparency, along with its strength and extraordinary conductance, graphene will be used to reinforce plastics and manufacture phone, touch and TV screens, among myriad other applications.
Changing the Consumer Landscape
3D printing is prompting mind-boggling developments in multiple industries with the speed at which a single part can be conceptualized and created. Consumers can print three-dimensional objects at home, ranging from phone cases and jewelry to ceramics and even food.
- As printers evolve, they’ll impact consumer products much like MP3 players transformed the music industry. Conducive links will enable the integration of electrical circuits not only on planar substrates, but also within 3D printed objects.
- Potential uses: 3D technology will enable the mass printing of circuit boards. Antennas, solar cells, LEDs and other electronics will come hot from a printer whenever and wherever needed.
Magnetism and ferroelectricity usually don’t appear in the same materials at the same time. But there are exceptions, namely certain metal oxides. When electric fields alter a material’s magnetic state, data can be stored and is then much easier to generate. The discovery that electric currents can flip the magnetization of small structures or translate magnetic domain walls is exciting for data storage.
- Multiferrics – a term first used in 1994 – have seen a recent revival based on the discovery of compounds with strong coupling capabilities. Applications include high-sensitivity magnetic field sensors and electrically tunable microwave devices such as filters, oscillators and phase shifters.
Silicon Battery Anodes
Silicon anode lithium-ion batteries allow for greater energy storage and smaller battery size, as well as a longer life between changes. This translates into key advantages for manufacturers of a wide range of consumer goods.
- Silicon anode materials, as opposed to carbon, have a much higher capacity for lithium. As a result, they have nearly 10 times the energy capacity per gram. Manufacturers can use less material and smaller, lighter cells allow for more innovative product design potential.
Researchers have developed a carbon nanotube fiber that conducts heat and electricity like copper and is as flexible as a textile thread. In the past year, scientists at MIT have come out with a nanotube pencil that allows users to sketch nanotubes whenever they need them. And a team at Rice University has created a thread long and flexible enough that they’ve wrapped 50 meters of it around a spool.
- As strong as steel, this thread has been termed “spinning smoke.” Theoretically, scientists of the future should be able to use it to build an elevator to a geosynchronous space station. Additional applications include electronic textiles and medical implants.
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