The Coming Revolution in Industrial Materials

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The Coming Revolution in Industrial Materials

As explained in prior issues, the Deployment Phase of the Fifth Techno-Economic Revolution is materializing all around us as our institutions gradually adapt to this new paradigm. This will enable a quantum leap in productivity and economic growth.

Throughout history, the pace of technological advances has been constrained by the materials available to implement them. So it should come as no surprise that a whole new portfolio of materials is emerging that permit dramatic breakthroughs to be implemented cost-effectively.

In prior issues, we’ve focused on silicon-based MEMS technology, as well as “miracle materials” including graphene, diamond, molybdenum disulfide, and metallic glass. Beyond those foundational materials and incremental improvements to traditional metals, plastics, and ceramics lie at least six particularly valuable “breakthrough materials,” which we’ll discuss in more detail:

  1. Self-healing materials
  2. Aerogels
  3. Thermoelectric materials
  4. Perovskites
  5. Stanene
  6. Super-hydrophobic materials

With few exceptions, materials crack, scratch, and break in the course of normal use. Self-healing materials fix this wear-and-tear themselves using a range of specific properties engineered into them. This reduces maintenance costs, prevents critical failures, and prolongs the life of the original investment.

Consider the maintenance of highways and bridges. As TripNet reported last year, the pavement of more than one-quarter of major urban roads in the U.S.—including interstates, freeways, and other arteries—is in substandard condition.1

Full of potholes and cracks, these rough-riding roads annually cost American drivers $80 billion in operating and repair costs. An estimate from the American Society of Civil Engineers shows that the economic losses from decaying roads, bridges, and other infrastructure cost the federal government $129 billion per year.2

Simply by mixing strands of steel wool into asphalt’s usual combination of pebbles and bitumen, a Delft University researcher has successfully created a road-ready material that’s practically self-healing. As he puts it, it heals itself “with a little bit of help” from a special vehicle that passes induction coils over the road to heat the asphalt at microwave frequencies.3

It’s estimated that transportation workers would need to run the machine over the asphalt every four years to repair minor damage and prevent potholes, thereby doubling the lifespan of a road...

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