Engineering projects are only as good as the materials used. Thanks to advances in material engineering, new compounds and structures are being developed that allow for fantastic new applications and bold new designs. Here are three engineering materials that will transform the industry.
3 Materials That Will Change Engineering
Aerogels are a class of porous solid materials, all of which have extremely low densities. They’re not a single material with a set formula; rather the term aerogel can apply to any material with a certain structure. Some aerogels have been the lightest materials ever created, with most of them being 95-99% air. This material has an unbelievable surface area within their internal fractal structures. A cube with 2.54 cm dimensions of this material can have an equivalent internal surface area of an entire football field. Mostly made of silica, they can also be made of carbon or other materials.
First created in 1931, aerogel was invented by Samuel Stephens Kistler for a bet to see if he could replace the liquid in jellies with gas, without causing shrinkage. Aerogels are created by extracting the liquid from a gel through supercritical drying.
A fantastic insulator, aerogel has even been used to insulate the Mars rover. It can also be found in carpets, pipes, paints and roofs. Originally aerogel was used as a filter for cigarettes, and a thickening agent for napalm.
Incredibly strong, aerogel can withstand 2,000 times its own weight in applied force, making it a good material for padding, and it can also be used as a chemical absorber for cleaning up spills.
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2. Carbon Nanotubes
Carbon nanotubes were discovered in 1952 by Soviet scientists L. V. Radushkevich and V. M. Lukyanovich, who published pictures of nanotubes in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.
Carbon nanotubes are long chains of carbon held together with sp2 bonds, which are stronger than the sp3 bonds that hold together diamonds. Known as allotropes, they take the form of cylindrical carbon molecules which allow for incredible strength – around 400 times stronger than steel – on top of possessing unique electrical properties that aid conduction.
Their name is derived from their size, since the diameter of a nanotube is on the order of a few nanometres (approximately 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair), whilst they can be up to several millimetres in length. They’re the strongest and stiffest materials yet discovered in terms of tensile strength.
There are three main methods of making carbon nanotubes: arc discharge, laser ablation of graphite and chemical vapor deposition. This last process allows for the most production at the lowest cost.
Carbon nanotubes are used in the construction of certain planes, leading to a longer lifespan for the craft. They can reduce the weight of a plane by up to 30%, making them more fuel efficient. They’re also used to clean polluted water, acting as filters thanks to their large surface area.
E-textiles make wearable technology possible. Also known as smart clothes or smart fabrics, they enable lights, computers and electronic components to be embedded within wearable technology and powered through them.
E-textiles were fully realised in 1985 by Harry Wainwright, who designed and made an electronic sweatshirt that consisted of fibre optics and a microprocessor that could display a cartoon on the shirt.
E-textiles are increasingly used in healthcare or safety. Clothing could monitor the wearer’s vital signs, transmit data as a form of communication or help keep someone alive in extreme environments.
The Engineering Revolution
As we develop new materials, we can use them to build new technology that couldn’t exist without them or apply them to solve old problems.