Advanced materials 'play vital role' in developing EU knowledge based economy

Advanced materials can play a vital role in Europe's transition to a low carbon, knowledge-based economy. Gerald Callaghan reports

By Gerald Callaghan

12 Dec 2012

Advanced materials outperform conventional materials and contain properties that are far superior, including greater toughness, hardness, durability and elasticity. They can hold novel properties, including the ability to memorise shape or sense changes in their environment and respond to these changes. The development of advanced materials can even lead to the design of completely new products, such as medical implants and pocket-sized computers.

The area of advanced materials research is extremely broad in its scope and has numerous potential applications. While some advanced materials are already well documented, it will take a few more years for others to appear in products on the market. So, what exactly are advanced materials? This elite class of materials includes metals, ceramics, gels, polymers and composites. The most important feature of an advanced material, however, is its key role in product design. It enhances component performance and, subsequently, enhances entire systems, allowing for a more compact design, with improved fuel efficiency, and greater overall durability.

One such advanced material is the shape memory alloy, which is an alloy that remembers its form, and can be returned to that figure after being deformed, by the application of heat to the alloy. When the shape memory effect is correctly harnessed, this material becomes a lightweight, solid-state alternative to conventional actuators such as hydraulic, pneumatic, and motor-based systems. Therefore, shape memory alloys, also known as smart alloys, have numerous applications in sectors such as the medical and aerospace industries. They are also extremely effective as thermal sensors and actuators in wide-ranging applications, like hot-water kettles, air conditioners and automobiles. These metals are also used in electrically actuated artificial muscles for robotic hands and surgical endoscopes. Furthermore, biomedical implants also benefit from the material's ability to return to a predetermined shape. For example, structures can be deformed so they can enter the body via keyhole surgery and then later be expanded through body heat.

"KETs are the indispensable 'technology bricks' to build a wide range of product applications to lead the technological leap forward" - European commission

Meanwhile, among the small wonders produced by nanotechnology are carbon nanotubes, an advanced material as strong as diamond. These amazing carbon cylinders possess 100 times the maximum stress strength of steel but are nearly 10,000 times finer than human hair. They are believed to conduct heat better than any other material, and they can also conduct electricity, or even function as a semiconductor. Advanced materials promise product enhancements and even new technologies. Actually delivering on those promises, however, is another matter. The transition from laboratory wonder to commercial success is long and strenuous, but through research and innovative design, several materials such as carbon nanotubes and shape memory alloys are making slow but steady progress.

Advanced materials technologies are important contributors in many value chains serving leading edge applications. The European commission has recognised this fact and they have included advanced materials in the list of six technology domains that are expected to enable, safeguard and stimulate future industrial activity in the European Union. A significant part of our future goods and services are as yet unknown, but the main driving force behind their development will be key enabling technologies (KETs), such as nanotechnology, micro- and nanoelectronics, including semiconductors, advanced materials, biotechnology and photonics.

"KETs are the indispensable 'technology bricks' to build a wide range of product applications to lead the technological leap forward for competitive advanced industrial production, whether it is the electric car, satellites, medical devices or advanced consumer goods", said a spokesperson for the European commission. Mastering these technologies will ensure that the EU remains at the forefront of managing the shift to a low carbon, knowledge-based economy. They play an important role in the research and development, innovation and cluster strategies of many industries and are regarded as crucial for ensuring the competitiveness of European industries in the knowledge economy.

Advanced materials research involves discoveries of the fundamental principles of chemistry, mathematics and physics that can be applied to control the properties of new materials, and then fashioning materials or nanostructures for real-life applications. It involves knowing the conditions under which a material will be used and identifying candidate materials for this purpose. There is always a real need for better materials, the real question, however, is how much better and at what cost?

An applied scientist will search lists of known materials or nanostructures looking for one that meets his or her needs. If existing materials are unsuitable for the application, then the applied and basic scientist must work together to develop a new material or nanostructure. The correlation between what is available and what needs to be developed reflects the important and complementary roles of the basic and applied sciences in materials science. Neither one takes precedence over the other; rather, they work hand-in-hand to fulfil our ever-growing need for new materials, with advanced materials playing a vital role in this process.

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