11 Jun 2018

Nuts and bolts - Building A Safer, Sustainable World


A menagerie of new materials
From keeping electronics cool to building new homes and safeguarding health, these three TechOffers highlight the power of novel materials in a variety of industries.

In the past, human structures and goods were primarily made from materials readily available in nature. Wood came ‘pre-fabricated’ by trees, and fur coats were essentially the stolen hides of animals. All that has changed with technology. Society is no longer limited to natural products for building and manufacturing—we can now create advanced materials with novel properties to suit specific needs.

Importantly, each new material, while being an end product of innovation itself, also becomes a building block for new inventions. Gallium phosphide and gallium arsenide were key materials in the creation of LEDs, but LEDs in turn became essential elements of a host of other technologies. Without a doubt, technological progress depends on the discovery and invention of advanced materials. It is no surprise then that the market for advanced materials is burgeoning and expected to continue to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.6 percent from 2017 to 2024.

This month, we showcase three TechOffers that revolve around new materials and methods that promise to shake up the electronics, construction and biomedical sectors.


Enabling cool gadgets

Look around and you are likely to find yourself within five meters of an electronic device. Whether they run on batteries or draw electricity from the power grid, many of these gadgets produce heat and need to be cooled lest they cause fires. Heat sinks, which remove excess heat from electronic systems, are thus essential for most modern electronics.

While conventional heat sinks are made of metals such as copper or aluminium, heat sinks made of polymer nanocomposite have been invented. Not only are these alternatives less expensive, they have also been shown to possess superior thermal conductivity and electrical resistance. Compared to their metallic counterparts, polymer nanocomposite heat sinks are lighter, stronger and more resistant to corrosion.

Additionally, the nanocomposite mix can be customised, which means that the final product’s thermal and mechanical properties are tuneable. The polymer composite can be produced in complex shapes and designs through injection moulding, making it flexible for use as pipes, high power battery casings and automobile components, among other applications. Manufacturers concerned with sustainability and the circular economy will also be happy to know that the polymer nanocomposite is recyclable, thereby limiting its impact on the environment.


Printing your dream home

Whereas in the past, individual concrete slabs were pieced together during construction, geopolymer 3D printing now allows building components to be produced as a single unit, at a more economical cost, and with much greater architectural freedom.

In this application, geopolymers are manufactured from industrial by-products such as slag and silica fume, essentially upcycling substances that would have otherwise been disposed of. Subsequently, a 3D printer extrudes the geopolymers into the desired shape, ensuring near-uniformity in production. Furthermore, geopolymer 3D printing can simultaneously reduce both construction time and wastage.

Given the versatility of geopolymers and the sustainable nature of their fabrication, the market for geopolymers was estimated to be worth over US$3.8 billion globally in 2017 and is set to flourish over the next five years, with a compound annual growth rate of 29.7 percent. The building and construction sector already accounts for approximately 20 percent of the total market share for geopolymers, a testament of the rapid adoption of this material.


Keeping it clean

While humans are busy building monumental structures, another group of organisms is busy constructing tiny abodes on every conceivable surface. Most of these microbes are harmless, but some varieties can cause severe illnesses when they take up refuge in our bodies.

For decades, antibiotics have allowed doctors to deal with infections by harmful bacteria. However, in recent years, many bacterial strains have evolved resistance to the drugs that we use against them. These are known as ‘superbugs’, and experts have warned of a return to the dark ages—where even tiny cuts or mild ailments become life-threatening—if the problem of multidrug resistance is not addressed. This looming threat has spurred the search for the next generation of antimicrobial technologies.

A new organic-based proprietary material that can counteract not only drug resistant bacteria but also fungi has been synthesised. Available in either liquid or solid form, it has been shown to be safe for use in animals and humans. The compound can be further modified to achieve maximum efficacy in a variety of contexts, including but not limited to consumables, agricultural feeds, cosmetics, apparels and wound dressings.

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