Radar Theme: Materials Science

[This is part of a series of posts that briefly describe the trends that we’re currently tracking here at O’Reilly]

New materials follow a curve: initially expensive and so used by R&D only, but many eventually become mass-produced and cheap and so enable mainstream applications. By tracking new materials with interesting possibilities, we can be ahead of the mass-manufacturing curve. The trick is to identify the alpha-hardware-geeks prototyping great things from the new materials.

Watchlist: Inventables.

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  • If you only watch 1 new development in the world of new materials let it be GRAPHENE: a carbon based crystalline nano-film. Not only does it exhibit useful electronic phenomena, it is extremely fast, cheap & easy to fabricate.

  • “The trick is to identify the alpha-hardware-geeks prototyping great things from the new materials.”

    I’m not sure that makes much sense while the material is still in the expensive/lab stage, unless that is where the hardware geeks are working. But if so, why not just track the material advances rather than the geeks?

    Historically, for example, the start of the micro computer era happened when microprocessors became cheap enough to put in home brew computers. We already knew what microprocessors would be used for, just not where and by whom.

    Today, we have carbon nanotubes. They are still not at any commercial stage, yet we already know many of the likely uses for them both at teh micro and macro level. By the time (if that happens) they are as relatively inexpensive as say carbon fiber and can be made in macro quantities suitable for hardware hacking, I doubt that we will see anything particularly novel about their use.

    The link to “inventables” was funny, because the applications for magnetic paint were for trivial things like making cereal boxes into magnetic games. More like a failure of imagination and hardly ground breaking…

  • Following up on Alex’s comment, while many new materials are very expensive, that’s not always the limiting factor. Sometimes it’s just that the material hasn’t busted out of its niche status. For instance, plywood was around for decades before Charles and Ray Eames saw its potential for furniture and art. Fiberglass was around for probably ten years before artists starting getting their hands on it and doing crazy sculptural stuff.

    We need people who are nosy and curious about what’s going on right now in niche fields like aeronautics, construction, sporting gear, medical…people who will then bring word of affordable new materials out to a wider audience.