RISK BITES: Designer Materials and 20th Century Innovation

by Ishani Hewage on July 1, 2013

In part two of the Advanced Materials series on the YouTube channel Risk Bites, Andrew Maynard takes a look at how the discovery of atoms led to us where we are today –  intentionally engineering materials from the atomic level up to turn stuff of sci-fi movies into reality.

How did we get to this point?  With the confirmation that everything is made of atoms at the beginning of the nineteenth century, our understanding of what makes materials behave as they do – and how to alter this – went through a transformation.  As researchers developed instruments that allowed them to visualize the atomic make-up of materials, they discovered that the look and behavior of materials visible to the naked eye depends on the type of atoms and their arrangement at the microscopic level. With this understanding, scientists began to engineer new and improved materials, including materials that were stronger and lighter, conducted electricity and heat better, had the ability to transmit or block light, and served various other functions that had previously been out of reach.

Things didn’t stop there. Fast-forward a few decades and scientists now have access to new tools and resources that enable them to manipulate the structure of materials at the finest level. We are now able to engineer incredibly complex materials down to the atomic scale – including the DNA and proteins that are at the core of all living things.

For more information on the emergence of advance materials, take a look this week’s Risk Bites video and subscribe to receive a new video every Tuesday.

For more information on the series, check out “Are Advanced Materials Safe?”

The seven-part series includes:

Part 1: A Brief History of Materials (June 25)
Part 2: Designer materials and 20th Century Innovation (July 2)
Part 3: Frontiers in Advanced Materials (July 9)
Part 4: Advanced Material and Risk – an Introduction (July 16)
Part 5: What Makes Advanced Materials Potentially Harmful (July 23)
Part 6: Novel Behavior and Novel Risk (July 30)
Part 7: Creating Advanced Materials that are Safe by Design (August 7)


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Terseer Hemben July 9, 2013 at 2:31 am

Approaching this question from philosophical construct, the new materials are products of objective science. This term means the materials are put together via objective consciousness. The products lack substantive meaningfulness such as emotions. Users create emotions toward them like I am dong now. Again looking at the products from genetic construct, the materials are lean, and lack hybridization consistent with Darwinism. Established science relates that pure substances lack stability when subjected. For example, pure metal catalysts affect reaction rate rapidly. However, pure metal catalysts are easily poisoned and lose potency. Alternatively, catalysts dosed with co-catalytic elements extend potency in use. This analogy submits that non-hybridized substances loss practical value when subjected to harsh conditions. Nanotechnology, for example, poses high risk to environment beyond prediction. What do you say?


Andrew Maynard July 9, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Thanks for the thoughts Terseer. I think it’s an interesting analogy to draw that hybridization supports resilience. But as with all analogies, it is only as good as the underlying mechanistic reality – it may be that it is a convenient – but largely non-predictive – analogy. This is obviously where empirical science is needed to flesh out informed speculation.


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