The Future of Materials Innovation – A Chance to Change the World Forever
What is Materials Innovation and Why Does it Matter?
Materials innovation is constantly on the move. From the beginning of recorded history, humans have been working with tools and their associated materials. We fashioned stone axes, knives, and spears to level the playing field with stronger, bigger and faster animals (try taking down a mastodon with your bare hands!). We wove textiles to make clothing and we treated wood with pine tar and other sealants to make boats and shelters. Our entire existence has been advanced by understanding how to manipulate materials and make them work better for us.
By definition – “Materials Innovation” is the process of developing new materials with specific properties that solve previously unsolvable problems. It’s important because this type of innovation has changed the world and not only made things easier for us, but it’s also made life as we know it possible in ways that were not even conceivable before. The U.S. government has even recently appropriated grant funds for materials innovation scientific discoveries.
We might think of the scientific side of materials innovation as a recent occurrence, but we have been working with and improving materials since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and long before. Today, we are always looking for a better material to improve our lives; whether that means clothing that lasts longer, houses that are easier to heat a cool, and vehicles that travel farther on fuel, or use no fossil fuel at all!
What is the Early History of Materials Innovation?
The great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw had this wonderful quote – “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. “
Unreasonable humans have been “progressing” by innovating materials for millennia. The ancient Egyptians invented linen while the Incas created cloth from llama wool. There are many other examples of innovations from early history including paint, glass, and steel.
Pottery and ceramics go back over 16,000 years and the first bronze weapons were manufactured about 2,000 B.C.! As early as the year 900, the beginnings of what we know as the periodic table began to appear in the very first classifications of chemical elements.
More recently were the discoveries of rubber, cements, and chemical substances – all leading to advancements in things like transportation, housing, and agriculture. No matter what the material(s), it seems that humans have always had a compulsion to improve the world around us.
What is the More Recent History of Materials Innovation?
Materials innovation has always been a prevalent factor in the progress of civilization. The past few decades have seen some of the most groundbreaking developments in materials engineering, from light-weight carbon fiber to more efficient solar cells. Because we now better understand some of the negative aspects of our recent progress, these new materials are helping to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and make our world a little greener.
What was the result of innovations, especially in the 20th century? It allowed for the mass production of goods, transportation, and housing expansion in areas beyond the urban centers.
The Industrial Revolution was a time of drastic changes to the political, economic, and social spheres. This revolution was fueled by advances in technology. Steam power and mass production led to the creation of factories, which in turn led to a more mobile workforce and the mass production of goods. This led to even greater advances that allowed people to move out of densely populated areas to more rural settings, eventually spawning great migrations westward across the United States.
Have We Paid a Price for our Progress?
The news is full of bad stories about the environment and climate change. Many of these are connected to industries that have a negative impact on the planet such as mining, farming, logging, and oil drilling. These activities have certainly led to progress, and life as we know it would be impossible without the innovations in materials that span all these industries. We have made huge progress, but it has come with a high price tag.
We’ve decimated some of our natural resources. Trees, farmland, rainforests, etc. The overaggressive purge of the land has taken a toll. Estimates are that about 10,000 acres of rainforest is destroyed every day and between 2015 and 2020 we lost over 10 million hectares of old growth timber!
Obviously, we need to reverse these trends. Regenerative agriculture practices and crops like industrial hemp are part of the solution. Hemp has a myriad of uses, grows easily, grows quickly and without many agricultural inputs (herbicides, pesticides and water). On top of all that, Heartland has just completed the first industrial hemp LCA, where we can account for 3 kgs of carbon sequestration for every 1 kg of processed Imperium Hemp Filler. You read that correctly, a full 3:1 carbon negative ratio!
Today, the push for sustainability is causing us to reexamine the way we use our natural resources, how we develop products and materials, and to pay greater attention to our effects on the planet. Today we are ushering in a movement to truly leave the Earth a better place for future generations.
What is the Future of Materials Innovation?
The future of materials innovation, and really, innovation in general is limitless! Have we paid a price for past progress? Yes, but we must frame the progress in the time period it occurred in. We now know that carbon emissions into our atmosphere are rising and need to be reduced. However, when materials such as plastics and petroleum were in their infancy, we didn’t know the negative effects. Plus, the positives were so clearly in focus – cheap abundant energy that the nation needed to advance, plus materials that were equally inexpensive and easy to mold and manipulate into various products from bottles to bumpers.
We have only had reliable measures for carbon emissions since the late 1950s, and research shows that carbon started rising in the late 18th century. A full 200 years before we really knew and understood the negative aspects of industrial progress.
So, where does that leave us today? Well, we are in a very good spot. Because we are more aware of emissions and the negative effects, materials innovation is centering not only on product advancements, but advancements that are not harmful to the environment and future citizens. In fact, material science is creating carbon-negative materials that not only alleviate any environmental sins of the future, but they can also atone for our sins of the past!
You see we are now advancing our materials in concert with saving the planet. The future of materials innovation will be shaped by how well we can utilize these two aspects in tandem. What is the best option for achieving both? The advancement of bio-based materials.
We see biomaterials as not just an element of future innovation, but the epicenter of materials for some time to come. Biomaterials typically have carbon neutral, or carbon negative characteristics. Meaning the growing and processing of these materials usually comes with a carbon benefit, not a carbon penalty.
Of course, at Heartland our play is using biomaterials to decarbonize plastics. We understand that as a society, we simply cannot “flip the switch” on plastics. They are vital to our survival as a species, and eliminating plastics is unrealistic. I know that sounds dramatic but take a walk around any hospital and in your mind, remove all the plastics. The results would be devastating. No flexible IV tubes, no lightweight pharmaceutical packaging and no easily fabricated sterile containers!
Our view is that we need to make the plastics we use less harmful to the environment. The way to do that is by incremental innovation, augmenting those plastics with bio-based materials. The innovation comes in not only devising ways to incorporate these bio-based additives in everyday plastics, but ever increasing the amount of bio-content over time. At some point we will be able to neutralize the carbon emissions of plastics, and eventually even reverse it.
What New Materials Will Mean to Our Economy
The materials sector is one of the most important industries in the world and it continues to grow at a rapid pace, but it is also the most capital-intensive sector, with investments required in assets such as equipment, buildings, and property. Materials are the building blocks of everything around us and it’s estimated that the materials industry is worth $2 trillion.
Products are the centerpiece of the world economy, they fuel markets, industries, and countries. To make a product, there are a variety of materials involved. These materials can range from metals to plastics and other polymers. The development of new materials is something that will have a significant impact on the products made in the future, because the consumer today is much more “judgmental” than at any other time in history.
Consumers and investors alike, are paying more attention to the composition of the products they buy, and the environmental impact of the processes used to manufacture them. Many investment portfolios now contain set asides for clean energy and lower carbon footprint business practices.
The development of new materials will impact our buying habits in a variety of ways, including price changes, functionality improvements, and of course, the environmental impact associated.
In a few decades, the materials we buy could feature a whole new periodic table. Scientists are developing new synthetic materials that combine the strengths of different elements into one material. This is allowing for more durable, energy-efficient, and sustainable products to be created, and opening the door for new business ventures that are merely great ideas on paper today!
As the materials sector is currently worth $2.1 trillion and is expected to grow to $4.5 trillion by 2030, the materials industry will have a major impact on the global economy. We will see huge growth of industries like aerospace, automotive, and construction; all of those will be dependent on the development of new, sustainable materials.
Where Do We Go from Here?
We see the future of materials and material science to be extremely optimistic. Past innovations had unintentional consequences with negative side-effects. The push for advancement led to the degradation of our environment, and the quest for progress has resulted in the depletion of our natural resources. However devastating, they were all done in the spirit of human advancement.
Today, we see the same thirst for progress with a new barometer of kindness to the environment. To reference Shaw again, being “reasonable” might equate to being satisfied with the status quo and continuing down our precarious path. Maybe it’s time to be unreasonable and take our planet and its resources a bit more seriously.
Join us in creating a carbon negative future.