Four Fantastic Materials Science Principles in Action

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Materials science is at the core of many superhero powers, including those exhibited by Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four—elasticity, invisibility, super strength and thermodynamics.

While becoming invisible or changing your shape may seem like science fiction, the principles driving these abilities are very real—and, in fact, are already being applied by scientists every day.

As research into materials science continues to expand, industries around the world will benefit from an entire new set of solutions available at their fingertips—whether it is developing more efficient power sources, redesigning airplanes or traveling even deeper into space.

Read on to learn more about how materials science developments today may change the world of tomorrow.  

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ELASTICITY (MISTER FANTASTIC)

In materials design, elasticity could refer to materials that are self-healing or reconfigurable.

 

Without human intervention, self-healing materials can repair damage by naturally reforming chemical bonds or using bacteria. In fact, such materials are already being used for applications like self-healing concrete or in the future, as anti-corrosive paint for Navy ships.

 

Reconfigurable materials, on the other hand, can change their properties under different conditions. At the microscopic scale, individual molecule bonds can reversibly change shape when absorbing and emitting energy. This translates to macroscopic shape change for polymer materials—for example, a polymer that curls or folds into itself when placed under light or electric charge.

 

“In the real world, we could imagine reconfigurable elements to be designed into planes or cars. Today, plane wing shapes are fixed, but the ideal wing shape is different during different phases of flight—taxi, takeoff, landing and so on,” said materials scientist Anna Paulson. “If designed with reconfigurable materials, these shapes could be optimized during flight to improve fuel efficiency.”

 

While a material that can turn a superhero into a parachute or trampoline is pretty farfetched, NASA is already exploring the use of flexible airplane wings, which could benefit from this type of research. 



 
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INVISIBILITY (INVISIBLE WOMAN)

Making an object appear invisible is really a matter of addressing patterns and light.

 

Invisible materials are patterned in a certain way, with conducting and insulating elements that can direct electromagnetic radiation around an object.

 

In rendering an object invisible, there are three big challenges: altering the size of these patterns, controlling light in three dimensions and designing a pattern for multiple wavelengths.

 

“Overcoming these challenges is physically possible, and already, patterns have been simulated with the necessary properties,” said Paulson. “Today, researchers are developing technology to fabricate three-dimensional nanoscale patterns that enable us to control light in three dimensions.”

 

While being an invisible superhero obviously has its appeal, invisibility would come in handy for aesthetic purposes in our everyday lives.

 

Imagine using building materials with invisible properties for power lines or as guardrails on top of the Empire State Building. Other applications for materials that bend light are in optical processors for faster computers and in antenna materials for higher power antennas.



 
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SUPER STRENGTH (THE THING)

To achieve super strength, you have to take the science principles down to a molecular level.


Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the nanoscale, which is between one and 100 nanometers, or one millionth of a millimeter. Here, you can alter individual atoms and molecules to change the physical, chemical, biological and optical properties.


As one of the best raw materials for nanotechnology, carbon provides a structure for graphene. In its purest form, graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon atoms, bonded so tightly together that they are impermeable to nearly everything—making the material both unbelievably strong and highly tolerant of harsh chemicals and wide ranges of temperatures and pressures.


While the material is currently being researched for use in everything from consumer electronics displays to medical devices, the possibility of perforating a sheet of graphene could also lead to new solutions for major global challenges like clean drinking water and energy management. 


Nanotechnology has also led to the development of carbon nanotubes, which are incredibly small and incredibly strong—100 times stronger than steel and 10,000 times smaller than a single human hair.


“What makes carbon nanotubes so strong is their carbon atoms, which are configured and bonded to one another with the strongest chemical bonds available to them,” said Mitchell Meinhold, Lockheed Martin materials scientist.

 



 

Today, carbon nanostructure fibers are being used in structures like the Juno spacecraft. In the future, given their energy efficient properties, carbon nanotubes could be used for long-lifetime lithium batteries, terabyte flash memory, smart phone chemical sensors, wiring for electronics that is woven into clothing and strong lightweight composites for consumer products.

However, a big limitation to producing nanotube-infused structures on a large scale is the ability to grow them to extremely long lengths. Nanotubes are currently grown in a lab—a miniature carbon nanotube forest of sorts—with the nanotubes reaching just a few centimeters in length.

“With meter-long nanotubes, you could imagine them being designed into something like lightweight cars,” said Paulson. “While the nanotubes are only strong in one direction, assembling them in multiple directions would allow the vehicle to resist impact.”

Scientists are already researching the use of multiple nanotubes stranded together to produce an incredibly strong, lightweight fabric. A real-life the Thing suit, anyone?

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THERMODYNAMICS (HUMAN TORCH)

The ability for a material to withstand extremely high temperatures boils down to chemical bonds.

 

In general, stiffer and harder materials melt at higher temperatures. To serve as a protective barrier, the material must also be a poor conductor of heat.

 

For a vehicle (or superhero) to travel at hypersonic speeds—Mach 5 and above—it must be designed with these extremely durable materials capable of withstanding temperatures in excess of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.  

 

With such heat-resistant materials, we could design spacecraft to travel even deeper into space or explore extremely hot places—like the surface of the sun.

 

“Of course, the exploration of places with very high temperatures would still be challenging because they are also areas of high pressure and radiation,” said Mike Stock, Lockheed Martin thermodynamicist. “However, we can design and develop advanced propulsion systems to take a spacecraft to the stars while avoiding the hazardous areas in space.”

 

Though a superhero like the Human Torch can envelop their body in flames, for the everyday person, heat-resistant materials could be useful in the areas of safety and fire protection. Very high temperature materials could also enable the construction of extremely efficient engines that would cut fuel consumption in half.