Sunday, November 21, 2010

New materials for industrial designers

These days we see a lot of searching by designers and artists for new materials that better fit the global mindset of today. Many of these materials though are only applicable for a small set of products, need a laborious production process, or are simply too expensive to make it to the mass-markets. And thus most of our products are still made of the conventional materials, with especially plastic being the material that we will want to replace soon. So what materials have real potential to become wide-spread in consumer products of the near future? I created a small collection of such materials, and put them in a document which you can download here.

Here is my personal top 5 of favorite materials:

1. Liquid wood
Arboform, nicknamed ‘liquid wood’, is an injection moldable and extrudable material composed of lignin, a natural polymer, and cellulose. It has the look of wood, but is cheaper, although more expensive than regular plastic, while almost being carbon-neutral. A unique property is that Arboform can be produced to be anywhere between flexible and rigid. It has been used in shoe soles, egg cups, toys, and for Ford’s automotive interiors.

2. Hydrogels
Hydrogels can be made by mixing water with a small amount of clay, salt, and organic components, which can then be molded into shape. The polymers will have bonded with the water, so the resulting hydrogel cannot be dissolved into water anymore. Maybe contrary to intuition, a hydrogel can have an exceptional mechanical strength when bonded to clay. Depending on the amount of clay used, a hydrogel can be highly transparent. Other unique properties of hydrogels are that they will heal themselves very rapidly, and will slowly recover their shape even after being subjected to high stresses. Their possible biodegradability, furthermore, makes hydrogels a chance-worthy candidate as a replacement for plastics. The research into this material is recent, so it is not ready yet for mass-production.

3. Liquidmetal
Liquidmetal is a metallic glass that looks like metal and can be processed like plastic – blow molding, injection molding, it’s all possible. It’s twice as strong as titanium, and almost unbendable by hand. This makes it possible to create parts with extremely thin walls. Apple has already licensed the intellectual property rights to the material worldwide, and is likely going to incorporate it in the chassis for devices like the iPhone, Macbook, and iPad. Other applications are sporting equipment like skis and baseball bats, USB drives, and watches.
Since using Liquidmetal does require a complete change in manufacturing structure, only few companies will allow themselves to take the risks coming with that, though in the future this material might become widespread pretty quickly.

4. Electroactive polymers
Polymers have been developed that change shape when subjected to electrical impulses. So far they’ve mostly been applied in robots, but it’s not hard to imagine these materials being used in self-actuating product exteriors of the future. You can also think of these being used in soft architecture, car bodies that can change shape, and studies are being done as well to incorporate EAPs into car tires in order to dynamically change their tread.

Compared to shape memory alloys such as Nitinol, electroactive polymers are superior in their spectral response, lower density, and resilience. A disadvantage to both shape memory alloys and electroactive ceramics is the lower actuation stress of EAPs.

Smart polymer gels are another class of cutting-edge shape changing polymers. These swell or shrink up to a factor of 1000 in response to stimuli such as temperature, light, magnetic fields, or a solvent. It is even possible for a polymer gel to change from opaque to transparent. Applications of smart polymer gels are mainly chemical, biological, or medical, but we can imagine these gels being used in future products. A hard drive may swell as it stores more data, a piece of jewelry might change shape, a toy animal may breathe, or a shirt may become tighter in order to simulate a hug or comfort people who can use it to calm down.

5. Auxetic foam
Imagine a foam – now pull it, and as you pull it, you will probably imagine it to contract due to the stress. Now picture the foam to actually expand as you stretch it. This is an auxetic foam, which has a zigzagged, bowtie-like internal structure, not unlike the famous Hoberman spheres, that makes the foam expand when pulled. Such a foam absorbs more energy and low-frequency sound than a conventional foam, at about 2 to 3 times the price. The material is usually a thermoplastic foam, but it’s also possible to create thermosetting and metal auxetic foams. Potential applications are in medical, athletic, and cleaning products.

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