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Explain this idea of “the material is the mechanism”.
It’s about moving away from the classical idea of materials - inert stuff that serves a structural role - towards the more contemporary notion of materials. More and more, materials are active and respond to stimuli in their environment. Materials can light up when an electric current is passed through them; materials can swell and contract in response to changes in temperature or acidity. Increasingly, there’s a blurring of boundaries between what is a material and what is a machine.
If you were to draw a materials family tree, where would you begin and what would be its main branches?
The main branches are ceramics (including rocks), which is the oldest branch of materials; natural materials (wood, leather, plant fibres, etc.), also very old; metals; and synthetic polymers. Since the 20th century, it would be fair to say that the introduction of synthetic polymers has been the biggest change we’ve seen in materials science. Things now, of course, are very diverse. The branch tips have split into countless categories, many of them overlapping. But one of the most significant has to be semiconductors.
Which natural materials have changed our lives or have the hope to change our future?
In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, there’s paper, which enabled the printing revolution. Looking ahead, we’re starting to explore nature more closely and use its principles to make new types of materials. Biological materials are made from either protein, where the raw materials are amino acids, or nucleic acids like DNA and RNA, or polysaccharides (carbohydrates), where the raw materials are sugars. Biology manages to do an incredibly wide range of things with proteins, in particular: horn, skin, tendon, and transparent material that makes up the lenses of our eyes. So materials scientists are inspired to look to proteins to see how they might be able to redesign them. For example, genetically engineered bacteria can produce new kinds of proteins that might create novel and biodegradable plastics. (more…)