Stories tagged materials science


World's smallest giraffe: Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image depicting a baby giraffe
World's smallest giraffe: Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image depicting a baby giraffeCourtesy Image courtesy of the Materials Research Society Science as Art Competition and Shaahin Amini and Reza Abbaschian, University of California Riverside
Materials science is the study of the relationship between the structure of materials at the atomic or molecular scales and their properties at the macroscale. Materials scientists do a lot of monkeying around at super small scales, and the Materials Research Society (the organization that brings together materials scientists from academia, industry, and government) has given them a creative outlet. At each of their annual meetings, MRS includes a Science as Art competition, where any registered meeting attendee can enter an image they have created. The images are pretty amazing in their own right, but when you think about the methods, medium, and scale used to create them, it's truly mind-boggling! Here are some of the best entries from past meetings, and some video versions of selected works as well.

Oh, hello, Pepsi. I see you've developed a soda bottle composed of 100% plant materials that is identical to their current bottle. That's nice. Too bad what's inside still tastes like fairy tears.

No, that's not fair. I don't even drink much soda. I only said that to sound cool. I'm sure Pepsi is just as delicious as Coca Cola, if not more so. In fact, "fairy tears" sound wonderful. It's just a shame you have to hurt little fairies (or their feelings) to get them.

Anyway, a 100% plant based bottle, instead of a PET plastic bottle. That might be good for the world. But I'm wary of 100% natural claims. The world is a complicated place. I guess we'll just have to wait until 2012 when they test market the bottle.

Wait ... 2012? Uh oh.

Like the Spiderman of silkworms: I guess.
Like the Spiderman of silkworms: I guess.Courtesy Tom or Jerry
Is this maybe a cool thing? Spider silk from genetically engineered silk worms. Or, at least, hybrid spider/silk worm silk.

Why do we want silk worms that produce spider silk, when they're already so good at pooping out their own worm silk, you ask? Because spider silk is awesome. It's super strong (as strong or stronger than most of our best artificial materials), and spiders manage to manufacture it at low temperatures, low pressures, and with water as a solvent (and it would be great if we could make strong materials that way). However, unlike wormy little silk worms (caterpillars, anyway), spiders don't play nice—you can have lots of silk worms together, and they'll all be happy to spin little silk cocoons, but if you put a lot of spiders together, they'll be most happy killing each other. Also, they are creepy.

Genetic engineers had managed to insert genes for the production of spider silk protein into goats, who expressed them by producing the material in their milk, but I don't believe it had all the qualities of true spider silk, and I don't imagine that's an ideal way to produce it.

But now scientists at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. have succeeded in transplanting spider silk genes into silk worms. The silk they produce isn't quite as strong as spider silk, but researchers believe that they may eventually be able to get genetically modified worms to produce silk even stronger than native spider silk.

Interesting, interesting.

Researchers have developed several ways to potentially mass-produce silk without moths or spiders. The silk can be a hard solid, gel, liquid, sponge, or fiber, is stronger than kevlar, non-toxic, and biodegradable. It's perfectly clear and can be used to create plastics, optical sensors, medicine delivery capsules implanted inside the body--the applications are pretty huge and pretty green.

There's already a silk tissue scaffold on the market that can be used to regenerate ligaments or other damaged tissue--the scaffold is implanted into the body in place of damaged tissue, and as new tissue grows around it, the silk slowly breaks down into amino acids and is reused by the body. How cool is that?!


Materials science

Materials scientists figure out ways to make things stronger, cheaper, or better. A favorite technique is nano-self-assembly. Just mix together the right ingredients and "presto", you get a wonder material. Another great development would be for the material to be self-repairing.

Self healing solar cells

MIT scientist, Michael Strano, and his team have created a material made up of seven different compounds including carbon nanotubes, phospholipids, and proteins. Under the right conditions they spontaneously assemble themselves into a light-harvesting structure that produces an electric current. The assembly breaks apart when a surfactant (think soapy solution) is added but reassemble when it is removed. These new self-healing solar cells are already about double the efficiency of today’s best solar cells but could potentially be many times more efficient.

Learn more about self-healing solar cells

Melissa Hines, the Director of the Cornell University Center for Materials Research, and Sam Colbeck, a retired scientist from the U.S. Army Cold Regions Lab, explain how innovations in boot and blade design help skaters perform better than ever before.


DNA origami
DNA origamiCourtesy Richard Wheeler

Nano robot uses two hands to twist molecules

A two-armed nanorobotic device built from DNA can manipulate molecules, twisting them into new shapes with 100 % accuracy.

With this capability, it has the potential to develop new synthetic fibers, advance the encryption of information, and improve DNA-scaffolded computer assembly.

The device was described recently in the journal Nature Nanotechnology; Dynamic patterning programmed by DNA tiles captured on a DNA origami substrate.

Read more in Science Daily

The new, two-armed device employs DNA origami, a method unveiled in 2006 that uses a few hundred short DNA strands to direct a very long DNA strand to form structures that adopt any desired shape. These shapes, approximately 100 nanometers in diameter, are eight times larger and three times more complex than what could be created within a simple crystalline DNA array. Science Daily


No one could ever bust this grill: Try as you might.
No one could ever bust this grill: Try as you might.Courtesy Bradley G.
Here’s a little bit more diamond news for y’all. Scientists have discovered not one, but two substances harder than diamonds.

The first material is called “wurtzite boron nitride,” and the other, even harder substance (58% harder than diamonds) is called “lonsdaleite.” Lonsdaleite, as it happens, is made of… diamond.

Or, if you want to be a nerd about it, lonsdaleite is made of carbon, like diamonds are, but it has a slightly different molecular structure. It’s often called “hexagonal diamond.”

Nobody had realized that these materials could be harder than diamonds before, because no one had considered subjecting them to “normal compressive pressures under indenters.” When you do expose wurtzite boron nitride or lonsdaleite to normal compressive pressures under indenters, they go through a phase transformation—that is, something changes in the bonds between their atoms, making them stronger. The atomic bonds in regular diamonds can’t undergo this change.

What’s that? You don’t know what “normal compressive pressures under indenters” is? Seriously? Whatever. Everybody who’s anybody knows what that is. But… um, I don’t know exactly what it means either. I’m pretty sure that it means that the materials undergo this bond-strengthening transformation only when it’s squeezed really hard.

So there you go. Throw out your diamonds, and get yourself some… better diamonds.


Nice spine protector, dude: But can it stop meningitis?
Nice spine protector, dude: But can it stop meningitis?Courtesy jeffedoe
Who needs to live their life with crippling paranoia? No one; it was a rhetorical question. It’s time we grab our paranoia by the soft spot, and say, “let’s just be friends, okay?”

Thanks to technology brought to us by the future, in conjunction with the University of South Dakota (and possibly money from the Department of Defense), we may finally be able to take the “crippling” out of “crippling paranoia.” The paranoia will stay with us, of course, because that’s what gives us our strength, but we will live with the confidence that the dangers of the world are actually two steps behind us.

The invention of Kevlar was a coup in the sweaty, awkward wrestling match of crippling paranoia—the high strength fiber assured protection from low caliber firearms and low temperature fires alike. One could strut confidently down the street, swathed in high tech fabric, feeling pretty safe from random gunshots, and flaming sewer explosions, and cougar attacks.

But…what if the cougar’s mouth is full of germs? I mean, it would be, wouldn’t it? Germs are a lot smaller than bullets, and maybe they could penetrate the Kevlar weave… And what if I accidentally licked my armor after a particularly sour sewer explosion?

Crippled. With. Paranoia.

Until now! The future and South Dak… whatever, those things I mentioned above, they’ve made another move in the arms war against paranoia: Germ-resistant Kevlar. By coating the fabric with a chemical called N-Halamine, a Kevlar garment could gain long-lasting anti-microbial properties. What’s more, once it does wear down, the chemical can be reactivated with diluted bleach, which is convenient, because I’m always carrying bleach around anyway (to fight the germs).

This is very exciting. I mean, with armor to best enemies both great and small, what’s there to be worried about? Invisible enemies?

Invisible enemies. Invisible, radioactive enemies…