I’m fond of telling people that in the last twenty years, technology has changed the way the world works but in the next twenty, it will start to change how the world looks. Materials science is perhaps one of the most exciting areas of research right now, with money flooding into research into two dimensional and meta materials with incredible properties.
Think about the difference between the world before plastics and the world after. Think about the shapes, weights and textures of so many objects that would have been previously unfamiliar. Now imagine a transformation of the same magnitude in the materials from which we make cars, buildings, and clothes. Think about a world where the previously impossible, becomes possible, because we have materials that are stronger, lighter, more insulating or more conductive.
Of course, not all of this is going to happen in the next twenty years. There’s still a lot of fundamental science and manufacturing development to be done on these new materials. But we’ll see early applications that will shift our expectations for what certain objects look like.
Rockets & shuttles
Take the Breakthrough Starshot programme, an ambitious plan announced in April 2016 to send a spacecraft to a planet orbiting our nearest star.
We all have ideas in our heads about what spacecraft look like. We’ve spent years — decades — absorbing news of rockets and shuttles, and having our imaginations stretched by depictions of craft in science fiction. But the ‘nanocraft’ planned for this project look nothing like that.
The latest research suggests that they might be giant ping pong balls, a few metres across but weighing just a couple of grams, including all of the electronics. To put that into context, the cereal bar I just ate was 30 grams: I just ate the equivalent of fifteen space ships.
As you can probably guess, there will be no passengers on this craft, which will be accelerated up to a fraction of the speed of light in just a few minutes by being pounded with photons from a giant laser array here on earth.
Making these giant ping pong balls will test the limits of our understanding of materials. You may never see one. But the money that goes into their development will probably drive changes in objects you see every day.