Materials Science & Technology Convergence

Unexpected convergent consequences... this is what happens when eight different exponential technologies all explode onto the scene at once.

This blog, the 7th of 7, is a look at materials science, resulting from an interview with Jeff Carbeck during the 2016 Abundance 360 Mastermind.

Materials Science – Context

Jeff Carbeck is a chemical engineer, materials scientist, entrepreneur and the head of Advanced Materials at Deloitte Consulting. He was a faculty member of chemical engineering at Princeton. He received his PhD from MIT, and worked in George Whitesides' lab at Harvard for his postdoc. And he was the chief scientist at NanoTerra, and cofounder/CTO of Arsenal Medical.

In other words, when it comes to materials science, Jeff knows his stuff.

We are in the midst of a materials science revolution that will impact every field of technology, and every aspect of our lives.

Today materials scientists are engineering smart, novel materials with properties not found in nature.

Novel materials mean breakthrough opportunities in energy storage, transportation, medicine, consumer electronics, ubiquitous sensing and digital manufacturing.

Today, breakthroughs are accelerating for two reasons.

First, new projects like the Materials Genome Project are using advanced machine learning techniques to accelerate discovery.

Second, new fabrication tools allow precise atomic arrangements, which dictate shapes, geometries and sizes.

Such tools have driven the creation of two-dimensional materials like graphene, which is 200 times stronger than steel by weight, and metamaterials, which can absorb, enhance and bend electromagnetic waves in ways that allow everything from super lensing to cloaking.

But that's only the beginning: carbon fiber composites enable lighter-weight vehicles, advanced alloys enable new jet engines, biomaterials replace human joints, and nanomaterials are driving breakthroughs in energy storage and quantum computers.

Top 5 Recent Materials Science Breakthroughs: 2013 - 2015

At Abundance 360, I asked Jeff to list the five most important recent (2012-2015) breakthroughs in the field of Materials Science. Here they are:

1. Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) predicts properties of thousands of new materials.

In the same way that the Human Genome Initiative mapped out every gene in our human body, and then was able to use machine learning to make predictions, the Materials Genome Initiative seeks to map out the hundreds of millions of different combinations of elements on the periodic table.

Why? Creating this database will allow scientists using AI to predict properties of new material combinations.

"Over the last few years," Jeff recounts, "we've been able to take the 10,000 materials we do know about, and, with the help of high performance computing and quantum mechanics, start to predict properties of new materials that don't exist yet."

2. Graphene empowers new electronics, sensors, and composites.

The potential impact of graphene has started to emerge. It will be a key factor in a world of ubiquitous sensing and ubiquitous computing. Graphene is a two-dimensional version of diamond or graphite with very unique properties – it's 200x stronger than steel by weight.

Over the last 10 years, we've been able to use graphene to make new kinds of electronics, very high performance transistors, new kinds of sensors, and new kinds of composites based on its unique properties.

3. Rechargeable metal-air batteries make grid scale storage low cost and reliable.

A new type of battery called metal-air batteries (e.g. zinc-air) have started to gain traction, offering the potential to power the 1.2 billion people around the world who don't have access to electricity.

"Grids using metal-air batteries has the potential to leapfrog traditional centralized energy production and distribution, especially in places like Africa," Jeff explains.

4. Transferable ultra-thin silicon circuits enable electronics on and in the body.

We are developing technology to transfer high-performance electronics off of rigid silicon wafers and into form factors that can go on or even inside the body.

This is going to change the way we interface with electronics – from how we track our daily activities to how we monitor our health to how we communicate and connect to the cloud.

5. Soft robotics start to change the man-machine interface.

Materials science allows us to make robotic structures out of fundamentally different materials that behave in a different ways – for example, rather than a rigid metallic prosthetic limb, imagine a soft robotic prosthetic that actuates like muscle when activated by an electric field.

"This will power a completely different physical interaction between humans and robots," Jeff explains. "These soft materials that are electroactive are allowing us to design push and pull systems, much like muscles."

So what's in store for the near future?

Top 5 Anticipated Materials Science Breakthroughs: 2016 - 2018

Here are Jeff's predictions for the most exciting, disruptive developments coming in materials science over the next three years. As entrepreneurs and investors, these are the areas you should be focusing on, as the business opportunities are tremendous.

1. Metamaterials will become widespread.

The continued convergence of supercomputing capabilities, modeling software, and micron-level additive manufacturing (and other manufacturing techniques) will allow us to increase our ability to predict, engineer and construct metamaterials that will have incredible properties that have not yet been found in nature (for example, making objects behind them invisible).

2. Perovskite solar cells will beat silicon photovoltaics.

If you don't know about perovskite, listen up!

Perovskite is an amazing material that happens to make very efficient and cheap solar cells.

When Perovskite's solar voltaic properties were discovered five years ago, they had a conversion efficiency of about 4 percent. Now it is at 20 percent, and is expected to rise to 30 percent in the next few years.

Here's the kicker – the cost is 100x to 1000x cheaper than traditional silicon solar cells.

Expect deployment to start in 2017. This is going to be a major contributor in moving the planet towards a solar-powered future.

3. AI coupled with the Materials Genome Initiative will allow us to commercialize new materials exponentially faster.

The Materials Genome Initiative developed over the past few years will come into full impact as cloud computing and machine learning allow scientists to discover new material combinations and material properties. Expect a lot of new commercialization efforts resulting from the application of AI.

You'll be able to say, "I want to build a next-generation implant for my knee," and your AI will understand all the possible materials available and help you choose the ones that are going to be the most reliable and the safest.

4. Carbon nanotubes and graphene will significantly extend Moore's Law.

If Moore's Law is to continue, we'll need fundamentally different ways to organize materials into computers. Graphene and carbon nanotubes are among the most promising solutions.

Its unique properties will allow us to continue to improve the price-performance of computing. We'll even be able to manufacture a chip using traditional technologies, then add the graphene functionality through materially pre-programmed self-assembly.

5. Recyclable carbon fiber composites.

While high-performance thermoset composites have enabled breakthroughs like the Boeing Dreamliner and the BMW i8, the challenge has been that it is 'use once and discard,' unlike aluminum and steel that can be melted and reused.

But recent breakthroughs can change this, increasing their utility.

As Jeff explains, "There have been real breakthroughs in chemistry that allow us to reverse that chemical reaction that makes the plastic composite, depolymerize it back into a liquid, and then reuse it."

Join Me

The implications of these converging trends are staggering.

There has never been a more exciting time to be alive.

This is the sort of conversation we explore at my 250-person executive mastermind group called Abundance 360.

The program is highly selective. If you'd like to be considered, apply here.

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