| Read the interview with materials scientist Andrew Dent: Living in a Material World

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

Photographs by Mike Pick | Image Permalink

The Science of Stuff

By Maywa Montenegro and Veronique Greenwood / February 4, 2010

Material ConneXion is a consultancy that connects materials scientists and design specialists with anyone seeking a better—stronger, lighter, more sustainable—material. They also curate a library of innovative materials that everyone from industrial designers to fashion students can access for research. In their annual Medium Awards, they recognize 12 exceptional new materials, now on display at their headquarters in New York City.

A Library of Ideas

The Material ConneXion Library is home to roughly 5,000 materials, from tiny pellets of bioplastic to something eerily like human skin. Each month, a jury of design experts selects new materials on the basis of four criteria: new materials process, a significant advancement on existing materials or process, technology transfer, and sustainability. With a subscription, users can either mine this physical archive at the New York headquarters or search an online database.

Science as Organizing Principle

Holdings in the Materials Library are organized into eight categories according to their material composition: polymers, ceramics, carbon-based, cement-based, naturals-derived, naturals, metals, and glass. Of course, says Andrew Dent, the vice president in charge of the library, some of those distinctions are fuzzy. To a materials scientist, ceramics and glass are very similar, but to a designer they have entirely different connotations.

Stingray Skin

Harvested from stingrays that have been farmed for food, this distinctive leather is an example of an entry in the “Naturals” section of the library. Stingrays develop oval surfaces on their backs that are studded with highly abrasion-proof horn beads. When slightly sanded, the dried skin becomes a rugged material for shoes, bags, and accessories.

Sitting on Silly String

Looking much like a block of ramen noodles, Breathair is an innovative cushioning material. “Cushioning is big business. The problem is, it is dominated by polyurethane foam, an un-recyclable polymer that has some issues with aging and does not like getting wet,” says Dent. “This 3-D, silly-string-like construction of polyester can offer cushioning that is easily recycled, can be hosed down, and is also variable in stiffness and density.”

Concrete Wallpaper

Etched at the surface, this concrete slab emulates the appearance of fabric. The concrete panels are cast from either lightweight glass-reinforced concrete (GRC) or a Portland mix containing 60 percent recycled materials. Current applications include architectural cladding and outdoor furniture.

Black Weave Cloth

“Carbon fiber is known for enabling stiffer, thinner composite parts than any other material,” says Dent. “But in order to achieve the thinnest ever, you need a specific weaving technique like this one. TeXtreme uses a patented weaving technology, so that in any given area more fibers can be packed in this tape form than is possible in a yarn.”

LED Signboard

“The current trend in transparent flexible lighting and display surfaces and screens has relied upon indium tin oxide (ITO) as the conductor,” says Dent. This product goes a step further and uses carbon nanotubes, which are small enough to be transparent to visible light. The nanotubes coat the clear polymer film and act as invisible connector wires for the LEDs in this product.”

Japanese Wood Fabric

“This highly flexible textile has been woven from thin veneer strips of salvaged wood, some of which have been submerged in soil for 3,000 years,” says Dent. “Offering good tear resistance, a unique texture, and dyed using organic pigments, the strips are woven together using silk threads and backed with Washi paper.”

True Sustainability

The Cradle-to-Cradle wall, named after the famous book by Braungart and McDonough, showcases a number of materials that have achieved high marks on sustainability. According to the Cradle-to-Cradle methodology, a product must either be recycled at the end of its life or become compost to feed the next generation of materials. Though no material has actually achieved closed-loop perfection, the textiles, papers, and other media on this display are on that trajectory.

The Future of Spill Cleanup

An Honorable Mention in the Medium Awards, the Smart Sponge absorbs oil but not water, making it a highly effective against crude spills and other water pollution. Designed by Abtech Industries, the sponge combines synthetic polymers in a foam-like material that expands slightly as it saturates, removing up to three times its weight in hydrocarbons. Once absorbed, the oils can be converted into a stable solid for recycling—much to the delight of fish, seagulls, and humans alike.

Concrete Cloth

The 2009 Material of the Year, Concrete Cloth, combines concrete and 3D textiles, two materials that have seen considerable innovation in recent years. Made by the British firm Concrete Canvas, it was originally developed for Concrete Canvas Shelters: “a building in a bag that requires only water and air for construction.”

Ready-made Shelter

Concrete Cloth is shipped in a roll, just like any other textile, but when draped over a framework and sprayed with water, it quickly hardens into a solid, water- and fire-proof structure, making it suitable for applications in disaster relief. It has also seen civil engineering and defense use, serving admirably as a replacement for standard concrete—a relatively small amount of the cloth can stand in for tons of heavy concrete, making for easier (and greener) transportation.

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