Nine years ago, Joshua Robinson was approached by his then-advisor with news of a discovery that would end up transforming his career, and much of materials science. “I saw this crazy talk about 2-D graphite,” he recalls his adviser saying.
He was referring of course to graphene, the first material to exist as truly two-dimensional: only a single atom thick. Back in 2006, the physics community was just beginning to wrap its mind around how a 2-D material could even exist.
Fast forward to 2015. The realization that materials can be thinned down to the absolute limit of a single atom is spreading, both throughout the world and across the periodic table. Researchers are learning that 2-D isn’t just for the carbon atoms of graphene. Different elemental combinations can lead to fascinating new science and applications.
Robinson is now associate director for Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Two-Dimensional and Layered Materials, a center with 20 faculty and over 50 students dedicated to uncovering the fundamental properties of this new zoo of 2-D materials. It is one of many such centers around the world. And as scientists continue to create new 2-D materials there’s a palpable frenzy to characterize their surprising electronic, optical, and mechanical properties.
The excitement stems from the fact that materials shaved down to only a few atoms act very differently from their so-called “bulk” or 3-D version. Quantum effects begin to take hold as the electrons in the material are squeezed into that impossibly thin layer.
And, being flexible, 2-D materials could bring those unique electrical properties to all sorts of new applications – from bendable touch screens to wearable sensors.
Vancouver-based architect Michael Green was unequivocal at a conference at which I heard him speak a while ago: “We grow trees in British Columbia that are 35 stories tall, so why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?”
True, regulations in that part of Canada have changed relatively recently to permit an additional story, but the point still stands. This can hardly be said to keep pace with the new manufacturing technologies and developments in engineered wood products that are causing architects and engineers to think very differently about the opportunities wood offers in the structure and construction of tall buildings.
Green himself produced a book in 2012 called Tall Wood, which explored in detail the design of 20-story commercial buildings using engineered timber products throughout. Since then he has completed the Wood Innovation and Design Center at the University of North British Columbia which, at 29.25 meters (effectively eight stories), is currently lauded as the tallest modern timber building in North America.
The Sochi Olympics are churning out dramatic victories – but athletes aren’t the only ones who fine-tuned their craft to get here. As U.S. bobsledders, skaters and lugers compete during these Games, they’re doing so with cutting-edge technology that’s gone through an equally exhaustive testing process.
These technological upgrades, which look to bolster their respective sports with faster times and improved features, will help athletes stand their best chance yet at scoring the gold this year. Here we take a look at three notable improvements.
With speed skating, the difference between scoring a gold medal and walking home empty-handed is determined by a fraction of a second. To help put U.S. Olympic speed skaters on the winning side of that difference, sporting goods manufacturer
Under Armour and defense contractor Lockheed Martin created the Mach 39 speed skating suit to shave off those precious nanoseconds.
Whereas most suits try to be as slick and aerodynamic as possible, Under Armour went the opposite direction by installing “flow-molding” on the backside of the Mach 39 suits. These strategically placed dimples work like the bumps on a golf ball, cutting back drag that accumulates behind high-velocity objects. “We’re trying to disrupt that air flow before it bulks up behind a skater,” Chief of Innovation Kevin Haley said.
Along with reduced air drag, the suits also cut down on friction generated between the athlete’s thighs as they cross over one another for tight track turns. Dubbed “Armour Glide,” these textiles are strategically located on the athlete’s inner thighs, where t
he most friction—and energy waste—occurs. With the textiles, athletes see a 65% drop in the coefficient of friction between the legs, letting them redirect their strength onto the ice and “put more power into the skates,” Haley said.
Debbie Chachra is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, with research interests in biological materials, education, and design. You can follow her on Twitter: @debcha.
In 1956, M. King Hubbert laid out a prediction for how oil production in a nation increases, peaks, and then quickly falls down. Since then many analysts have extended this logic and said that global oil production will soon max out—a point called “peak oil“—which could throw the world economy into turmoil.
I’m a materials scientist by training, and one aspect of peak oil I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.
The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. Still, this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.
But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still only account for about 2% world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.