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
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.