An ‘Organic’ movement for materials

Markus J. Buehler

Markus J. Buehler, McAfee Professor of Engineering at MIT

When we talk about advances in materials science, the focus is typically on the materials themselves: how strong we can make this fabric, how light we can make the construction materials, how cheap we can manufacture better products than we have now.

But the benefits of materials science go far beyond performance. In fact, the field could lead to an “organic movement” of sorts for materials, similar to the movement toward organic foods that we have seen in recent decades.

In the world of food, organics are often seen as preferable for their perceived environmental and health benefits. Also, many people who opt for organic foods make an additional effort to “eat local,” consuming in-season products that are grown near where they live as a way to support their local communities and create more resilient supply chains.

Advances in materials science can help product designers to achieve similar benefits.

Environmental sustainability

Virtually every industry today relies, in some way, on relatively cheap fossil fuels. But as climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, and businesses potentially have to pay for the adverse environmental impacts of their operations, we’re going to see more and more companies searching for sustainable alternatives to their current approach. (Many people don’t realize that around 8% of the world’s carbon emissions are the result of concrete production, with around the same amount coming from the steel industry.)

In the wood industry, companies are starting to seek out greener methods of making particleboard. And makeup companies are looking to cosmetics practices from traditional cultures – using modern chemistry to try to replicate a more organic approach to production, rather than relying so heavily on petroleum and potentially toxic chemicals for their manufacturing processes.

There’s also growing interest in crops that will yield strong fibers that can be mixed into polymer, cement, steel or even plastic. Imagine a genetically engineered plant that provides nanoscopic fibers that strengthen materials. This could not only lead to lighter, thinner, stronger product components, but also to those parts being more environmentally sustainable.

Streamlined supply chains

As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, even the smallest disruptions to industrial supply chains can lead to enormous problems. The pandemic, which began with a widespread toilet paper shortage, eventually saw people hoarding dumbbells for resale and waiting months to buy a new car or bike.

Source: R&D World