Materials of the future will have applications that we can hardly imagine today. But above all, they will be characterised by some key traits: they will be bio-based, circular, strong but light, customised for their exact area of use and they must all live circular lifecycles. We asked two of RISE's associates to explain what all of this means.
Materials of the future will be able to do things we may not immediately associate with them today: why not regulate home temperatures with the help of wallpaper? Or scroll on your timber telephone?
The materials we use in the future will be distinguished by three characteristics: they will be functional and customised for their exact application, robust and rigid in relation to weight, and they will all need to possess circularity.
Furthering higher functionality
Some of the materials of the future will be characterized by functionality and will be customised, i.e. the materials will exhibit the qualities that are best suited to their field of application.
“For example, a fibrous material with antibacterial properties for wound care. Or fibres to encapsulate a slow-release medicine, where you get a fully adapted and customized material depending on the active substance to be encapsulated,” says Jonas Aspling, departmental head at RISE.
Another example of new functionality will be bio-based electronics, such as cellulose materials that conduct electricity.
“Batteries are just one example of where bio-based materials can make a difference and help solve energy storage issues. A collaborative project between RISE, Linköping University, and KTH has, for example, developed a cellulose-based material that has broken the world record for electrical conductivity,” says Marie-Claude Béland, business developer at RISE.
Light – but also tough
The strength of materials is a frequent issue for the composites industry, where the demand is for great strength and rigidity in relation to weight.
“Simply put, this is about reducing the weight of vehicles and planes thereby saving on fuel,” says Jonas Aspling.
In order to create lightweight yet powerful materials, the composite industry uses carbon fibre mats, whose ends are cut off as waste during production and discarded or burned. Making the most of these cutoff end-pieces brings us to the next big question for materials of the future: Circularity and Recycling.
“Circularity and recycling are hot topics right now. In the field of bio-composites we need to increase our understanding and knowledge of profitable, circular business models while also learning to better understand material properties in relation to reuse and recycling,” says Marie-Claude Béland, who coordinates the Bio-Composites project under the auspices of the Swedish national strategic innovation programme, Bioinnovation.
Circular materials - waste becomes a resource
When we talk about the materials of the future, most people are looking at bio-based or recycled materials.
“Much of what is today made from fossil raw materials must instead be made from bio-based raw materials. For example, plastic bags or plastic bottles of polyethylene are usually made from petrochemical sources, but they can also be manufactured from ethanol derived from sugar cane. It’s exactly the same molecule, but with a different origin. We also see there are now new ways of using recycled materials,” says Jonas Aspling.
Circularity is key for materials of the future. This is as much about recycling as collection, reuse, traceability and the ability to utilise leftover materials. The waste product of one industrial product can become another industry's new resource.
The cutoff end-pieces from carbon fibre mats we just mentioned have gone from costing many hundreds of crowns per square metre to being worthless – or sometimes becoming an expense when you have to pay to incinerate them.
“Instead, you can use these pieces as plastic reinforcement, and use them in different components - maybe even part of the chair you're sitting on. Reinforced plastics, particularly carbon fibre reinforced plastics, are quite expensive, but by using waste you get a robust and inexpensive material. Something has been transformed from waste into a valuable resource,” says Jonas Aspling.
Learn from mistakes of old materials
At the same time as we gain new materials, in the future we won’t commit the old errors, where a certain material was applied in products where it didn’t actually achieve optimal use. One example of a material being misused is evident in a product many of us use on a daily basis: The PET bottle.
“We manufactured a plastic material that is a super material, totally indestructible, and then we used it for disposable products. In the future, there’ll be a much better match between materials and their functionality,” says Marie-Claude Béland.
Of course, we need to match a material with its function, and it is the fundamental requirements of strength, barrier properties, impact resistance, lightness of weight and efficient production that made PET so widely used.
“One of the largest streams of recycled plastics which is traded and used in various products comes precisely from PET bottles. One major area of application is in the manufacture of polyester fibres for clothing and textiles,” says Jonas Aspling, who believes that the problem with, for example, PET bottles is actually a waste management problem. Recycling works best in places that have deposit and collection systems and the greatest resource waste occurs when a durable material such as a PET bottle is disposed of directly without being reused.
“We’re going to see solutions with other materials used for bottles that can be broken down in the natural environment. But disposing of bottles in nature should never be encouraged, so they will also need to be collected for recycling.
Solving the major problems
In the future, only our imagination will set limits on which materials we can manufacture and use, believes Marie-Claude Béland and tells us that today, fantastic things are being done with bio-based materials.
“Everything from filters for cleaner air and water and lignin-based carbon fibres for paper with conductive properties; bio-based materials with the correct functionality will help us solve the big challenges. All of which is very impressive.”