Corn-based paint and other miraculous next-generation materials

Increasingly, next-generation materials tend to be old ones dressed up in new high-tech clothing. Designers and researchers today seek inspiration in the abilities of insects or the extraordinary properties of clay, which are not only more efficient but often more sustainable as well.

Marie-Sophie Müller

Rubber from dandelions

Tyres, mattresses, gloves – we depend for so many everyday products on rubber, manufactured from the milky sap of the rubber tree. No synthetic alternative has so far proved a match for natural rubber, but resources are not infinite and the tree grows only in tropical climes. Now researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) in Münster, Germany, have discovered that the properties of another plant – the Kazakh dandelion – are also suitable for use in rubber production. “The dandelion is a very humble plant, grows in temperate climates and flourishes even in soils that would have difficulty sustaining a potato,” explains research scientist Dirk Prüfer. The fact that the raw material can be grown widely without the need to import it from Asia is also a strong argument in favour of its carbon footprint. In a joint venture with Continental, the researchers have now developed a prototype tyre which scores as highly in tests as a conventional tyre. It is expected that industrial manufacture of products made from dandelion rubber will be viable within a few years.

Self-repairing paint made from cornstarch

An environmentally-friendly car paint that repairs minor scratches by itself? How come no one invented that years ago? Well, the idea could soon be reality. Researchers from Saarland University and the INM Leibniz Institute for New Materials are developing an innovative paint derived from cornstarch. The reticulated structure of the paint makes it as supple and elastic as a nylon stocking. The material also automatically repairs minor scratches. But the really exciting feature according to research scientist Gerhard Wenz, is the environmental compatibility of cyclodextrins, which are derived from cornstarch. Previous self-repairing paints could only be produced using highly toxic solvents. Although the new invention will only be able to gain a foothold in the motor industry once it has successfully undergone comprehensive testing, it would seem that industrial applications are already a real possibility.


A black so dark that no surface feature is discernible to the human eye: no contours, no reflections – nothing. Coated with Vantablack, a crumpled sheet of aluminium foil appears two-dimensional, the colour seeming to absorb every crease. But this is no paint compound, it is a preparation made up of a dense forest of ultrafine carbon nanotubes that absorb virtually all incident light. Originally developed by Surrey NanoSystems in England for satellite-borne blackbody calibration systems, Vantablack soon aroused the interest of other sectors when the company unveiled the invention in 2014. Anish Kapoor acquired exclusive rights to artistic use of the colour, and this autumn timepiece manufacturer MCT will launch a chronometer with a Vantablack face – a “black hole” to wear on the wrist.

Sports clothing made from ultralight polyisoprene

Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen is famed for her futuristic solar fashionwear, including clothing that charges your mobile phone as you wear it. Her latest project involves the product Skynfeel, a latex-free material made from polyisoprene and developed by condom manufacturer Skyn, which she has taken from the bedroom to the running track. Her experimental skinsuit for long-jumpers is ultra lightweight, extremely flexible, hardwearing and features wing-like flaps that are designed to lie flat during the approach and open up during the jump, helping the athlete to stay in the air longer.

Insects as engineers

When it comes to developing sustainable materials, it is always worth observing the inventions of Mother Nature herself. French designer Marlène Huissoud spent many years researching the wax honeycomb structures created by bees. Honey bees produce a natural resin called propolis, which they use to repair small holes in the hive. This resin is removed from the hive by the beekeeper when harvesting the honey. Ancient Egyptians once used propolis to embalm mummies, and it was later used in the manufacture of violin varnish and for skin irritations. Huissoud works propolis like glass, blowing it by mouth to create shiny vessels. For a second project in her “From Insects” series, the designer developed a highly resistant paper made from the fibres of the silkworm cocoon. The ultra-thin threads contain sericin, a natural glue. Huissoud activates this binding agent by spraying the fibres with water and heating them, before pressing the preparation into a kind of paper and coating it with a propolis varnish.

The best inventions only become visible to a wider audience when they find application in a field other than the one for which they were originally intended. Teflon, the world-famous non-stick coating, was originally used in the development of seals that were non-reactive to uranium hexafluoride. In the 1950s, as legend has it, the French engineer Marc Grégoire coated his fishing line with Teflon to keep it from getting tangled; his wife then had the idea of applying the non-stick material to her saucepans and frying pans. Teflon is still best-known today for its uses in the kitchen.

How are new materials developed and how do they make the leap from drawing board to practical application? At Haute Innovation, a materials and technology agency based in Berlin, Dr Sascha Peters introduces new inventions to people working in industries that may find an application for them. “We sit between the developers of new materials – entrepreneurs, researchers, designers and architects – and end-users such as the construction industry, furniture designers and carmakers.” Peters uses exhibitions, trade fairs and trend analyses to make his introductions. One of the biggest drivers of invention at the moment is the energy revolution, he says. “The world has had a rethink since the Fukushima disaster; it’s incredible to think what has been developed since then. Often, for example, we’re working on bio-based solutions to things that until now were only possible through chemistry.” In 3D printing, developers are looking for materials that generate no plastic waste. And even traditional biomaterials like clay are being rediscovered as a building material that can be deposited in a succession of layers by pre-programmable printer jets.

Another field currently undergoing rapid development involves so-called smart materials – materials which have an integrated function. The Fraunhofer Institute in Dresden, for example, has developed alloys with a shape-memory function, Peters explains: “These materials can be programmed to have specific shapes that are activated when they reach a specified temperature. It means that, in bright sunshine, building façades can close automatically without the need for motorisation.”

In autumn this year, watch manufacturer MCT will launch a limited-edition wristwatch. With just ten copies being made, the timepiece will feature an innovative aesthetic detail that has its origins in space exploration: Vantablack, the blackest black ever known to man. A dense forest of carbon nanotubes absorbs virtually all incident light, turning any object coated with Vantablack into a “black hole”. “When we unveiled our invention at the Farnborough Airshow in 2014, we were overwhelmed by the interest in Vantablack shown by so many unrelated sectors of industry,” recalls Ben Jensen, chief developer at Surrey NanoSystems. The company’s most prominent client to date is the British sculptor and artist Anish Kapoor, who acquired exclusive rights to the artistic use of this darkest of all colours. As a consequence of the debate surrounding Kapoor’s smart strategic move, this high-tech material known previously only to a narrow circle of specialists is now familiar to a global audience.

Clay in 3D printing

In a small Italian town between Ravenna and Bologna, one of the oldest building materials known to man is being hailed as a model of sustainable construction thanks to a high-tech application. With the aid of a giant 3D printer, a daub-like mixture of clay and straw is deposited in layers in such a way as to create cavities between inner and outer walls that can be filled with insulating material. The circular buildings are 12 metres in height, doors and windows are cut out once the 3D printing process is complete. This traditional construction material came back into fashion in the 1980s as an environmentally-friendly plaster for use in modern architecture. Although daub is now considered unsuitable for energy-efficient architectural design, the material itself carries an excellent energy footprint, storing warmth and regulating air humidity. Clay buildings are pleasantly cool in summer, and in winter the walls absorb and store heat before releasing it into the interior.