Why We Should Embrace New Material Development and Innovations

Natalia Scherbakoff, Global Technology & Innovation Director, Engineered Materials

- Tuesday, November 15, 2022

In the past, ships used to be built from timber. In 1670, naval shipwright Sir Anthony Deane built the first royal ship mostly from iron. He was confronted with resistance and was said to be using unauthorized technologies and unapproved materials, although he believed iron was a better and more suitable material to build ships. Luckily, King Charles II backed him up, and for years afterward, this material replacement continued to significantly impact warfare and marine transport businesses.

Sir Deane’s decision to replace timber with iron had a “push factor” — probably due to the shortage of timber resulting from the Great Fire in London in 1666. Meaning the change of material for shipbuilding was triggered by a shortage in the original raw material used.

After that, iron replaced timber in shipbuilding in the mid-to-late 1800s. And in the 19th century, steel replaced iron for its lightweight, higher tensile strength properties, which allowed more loadings and increased cargo capacity. The change of materials in this period was due to the need for improved performance.

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Materials Science

To successfully promote new material usage or replacements, materials science expertise is highly valuable across industries and markets. In the material science field, the composition, structure and property of materials are studied. This field has shaped the development of civilizations as they evolve from using wood to metals, glass, plastics and other materials.

Industry and consumer expectations change over time: We used to define material usage mainly based on its functionality, properties, appearance and accessibility. But now, a new criterion is coming into play — a material’s carbon footprint, which is increasing in importance in selecting materials.

Material Replacement

In the development and evolution of materials, we sometimes make the same material better and, at other times, replace one with another. Here are some examples.

  • Recycled and bio-based plastics are replacing fossil-based plastics. This allows plastic circularity in which waste is reduced while maintaining the functionality and benefits of plastics.
  • Plastics are being used to replace metals for automotive parts, so vehicles are lighter overall, thus traveling farther with the same amount of fuel.
  • Acrylic plastics are used as a glass replacement. These plastics still provide transparency but are lighter and safer when breakage occurs.

All these examples are material replacements for the better. And these rely on new innovations and technological developments. Materials science is needed to enable a replacement from one material to another.

Imagine replacing metal with plastics for automotive parts. We have to ensure the replacement plastics are able to provide the impact and tensile resistance required in a vehicle, not to mention passing all related tests before it reaches the end users. And in fact, plastic parts, when appropriately designed, could better absorb energy from a moderate crash when compared to metal. For example, a plastic bumper helps protect pedestrians and cyclists in collisions better than metal. By replacing metal with plastic parts (click to download PDF file), the car is overall 10% lighter and results in a 6% to 8% fuel economy improvement. With the increased fuel efficiency, emissions will be reduced as well.

Why Should This Matter To Us?

Besides investments in innovation and technology development, the successful development and evolution of materials also relies on the acceptance of consumers and authorities. If the open-minded King Charles II had never existed, our marine industry might not have grown so quickly at that time. Although carbon footprints are a common concern, let’s embrace new material innovations and avoid presumptions about certain types of materials.

Natalia Scherbakoff is a member of Forbes Technology Council. Get more insights from Scherbakoff’s thought leadership by reading her posts published on Forbes.com.

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