Advanced Materials: Stories of Innovation
by Neil Gussman
On a clear, unseasonably warm evening in late February 2012, nearly 200 people gathered at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to hear experts discuss the past, present, and future of materials science. The on-stage discussion brought together six research leaders from the chemical industry to talk with Ivan Amato, author of the book Stuff: The Materials the World is Made of.
Titled Advanced Materials: Stories of Innovation, the event was a partnership between Discover magazine and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Michal Meyer, editor in chief of Chemical Heritage magazine, opened the event by connecting materials science with the long history of chemistry and alchemy. She quoted a recipe from the noted alchemist Sir Isaac Newton “Take of urine one barrel and let it ferment three months in summer . . .” showing the strong commitment and limited resources of the first chemical experimenters.
Following Meyer, Corey Powell, editor in chief of Discover, linked the event to the magazine’s annual issue “Visible Planet” that shows readers “the marvelous hidden in the mundane” through stories of how scientists see common objects. “There is no better example of that than the chemical perspective,” Powell said. “We live and breathe chemical processes, but we don’t think about them.”
|Panelist (from left) Christopher D. Pappas, Mark Doriski, and Gregory Nelson.|
Amato introduced the event and the panel. He said, “The periodic table of elements amazes me. It is the “Mother of All Pantries.” Every material thing that ever was, is, or will be resides in that discovery. We should all have a copy in a shrine-like environment between two candles.”
Materials science is more than the elements, it’s how they are combined,” Amato said. “The history of technology innovation is closely tied to innovation in materials.” Amato introduced the six panelists, who he said were in the business of bringing new materials into existence:
Amato then introduced the first of three questions he would ask the panelists to discuss before opening up the event to audience questions:
What roles have materials innovations played in the recent history of technology?
First to answer the question was Sreeram who pointed out that “48 percent of the energy consumed in America is used to heat, cool, and light our living spaces.” He talked about Dow insulation products as an example of an advance in materials leading to better quality of life for everyone through reduced energy consumption. He also contrasted the obvious advanced materials that surround us in personal electronic devices with the invisible advanced materials such as the reverse osmosis filters that turn sea water into drinking water.
|Host Ivan Amato (left), with Thomas M. Connelly and A.N. Sreeram.|
Connelly said, “The world has enough stuff by and large. It needs smarter stuff, higher performing stuff, greener stuff. We need to look at the value side of the equation, not just the volume side.” He talked about the recent rapid advances in photovoltaic technology. “From the discovery of the photoelectric effect in 1880 until 2000, the world installed one gigawatt of photovoltaics. Last year we added more than 10 gigawatts, enabled by advanced materials.”
Pappas explained that materials innovation can also take the form of refining and enhancing the properties of existing compounds. He said Styron adds new functional groups to styrene-butadiene to give tire makers rubber that can maintain wet grip while reducing rolling resistance. “You can innovate around basic technology, not just brand new things,” Pappas said.
Following the point Pappas made, Doriski said synthetic lubricants were invented in the 1930s but have been growing in the automotive market with research and innovation in the last two decades. He said the USA could reduce gas consumption by a billion gallons per year by switching to synthetic lubricants.
Nelson talked about interacting with consumers, explaining how Eastman’s TRITAN lets consumers choose BPA-free plastics in food containers. “Consumers are becoming part of the product development equation,” said Nelson. “They care how you have made this product, what you have made it from. They are telling us, ‘We care what happens to us when we interact with this product.’”
“Materials innovation is going to be about the creativity of our scientists and about interacting with informed consumers,” said Nelson.
Dirkx said he entered an undergraduate materials science program focused on ceramics since he wanted to study advanced ceramics for nose cones on spacecraft. When he went to his first lab he saw a row of coffee cups on the lab bench—confirming his worst fear about studying ceramics. “Then the professor picked up one of those cups and hammered a nail into a board with the side of the cup,” Dirkx said. “Materials had me at that point.”
Dirkx talked about his company’s long history in biopolymers. Arkema has made nylon from castor oil for almost 60 years, a slightly different nylon that resists cold very well and is used as brake lines on all trucks in the Yukon and Siberia. Dirkx said, “We have sold biopolymers for decades because they work, not because they are plant based.”
As a follow up to the opening question, Amato asked Pappas about the balance between characteristics of the rubber his company develops. “Is it a trade-off between rolling resistance and wet weather performance?” Amato asked. “Those seem to be pulling in opposite directions.”
“Our scientists have been able to reduced rolling resistance without compromising wear and wet grip,” Pappas said. “That kind of innovation tends to rapidly take over a market.”
Sreeram added, “Another example is high-temperature elastomers.” He said that in normal plastics, increasing temperature resistance means lowering elasticity. High-temperature elastomers went from scientific publication to the market in less than a year because the demand was great.
Amato then introduced question two:
It takes a lot of science, a lot of engineering, and a lot of good management to nurture a good idea and translate it into a consequential new material. How do your companies create cultures in which all of that can happen?
Doriski said, “Commitment and collaboration are the keys to a culture of innovation. We have 18 000 scientists and a billion-dollar research budget and collaborate with many universities.”
Connelly stressed the need for a culture that can foster innovation. Leaders need “a tolerance for uncertainty,” he said. “You can’t be too quick to make a decision and close off optionality.” But when the decision is made “You have to be ruthless,” Connelly said. “You can’t have pet projects. Most things we work on will fail.” Research leaders need market insight and judgment to pick the right projects.
Nelson said he was asked by an Eastman board member what he would do if he got a 10 percent increase in his R&D budget. His answer: “I would give a third of the money to our marketing department to hire market insights people. I do not want to develop products no one wants.” He continued, “Innovation is different than invention. Innovation serves the needs of people.”
Amato posed the third question to the panel:
What are the grand materials-related challenges that face society now?
Amato asked them to go beyond the context of their own businesses and the chemical industry. “Think about problems that may not have solutions now.”
“Cars need to get smaller. The cars of the future aren’t going to look like the cars we have today,” Connelly said. “With all respect to ExxonMobil, there is a future for the electric vehicle. We need new materials for inverters, new materials for energy storage, we need new materials to take weight out of vehicles.”
Doriski responded recommending ExxonMobil’s report on the future of energy to Connelly and the panel. He then explained how synthetic lubricants reduce waste by reducing maintenance. He talked about industrial gearboxes and automatic transmissions in cars. With synthetics, industrial gearboxes, such as those on wind turbines, run many times longer between oil changes, increasing efficiency and reducing waste. He said automatic transmission fluid now lasts as long as the car.
Nelson said he read ExxonMobil’s report and noted that over the next 30 years the projected greatest source of new energy will be saved energy. He said every process uses energy and that small savings in many processes add up to the energy that will allow more people around the world to move into the middle class.
Pappas returned to the automotive theme saying Styron developed molded polymer seats that replace metal seat frames, reducing overall weight of the vehicle. He said LED lighting and all the materials innovations that make it possible will be another source of significant energy savings in the future.
Amato said new materials change the landscape of our world. The first time he encountered LED lighting on a vehicle was in the 1990s and now LED lights are common.
The first questioner from the audience asked if fracking and the availability of cheap natural gas would change the chemical landscape in the way coal tar became the raw material for so many chemical innovations of the 19th century. Pappas said the chemical industry has already changed. Cheap natural gas has already led to billions in investment and thousands of jobs on the Gulf Coast as well as in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.
Sreeram said he read an article titled “RIP American Chemical Industry” in 2008, but with falling natural gas prices “We got our swagger back.”
Thomas R. Tritton, president and CEO of CHF, asked about self-healing polymers. Dirkx said he had examples with him on a display table on the third floor, and that more innovations were on the way.
Another questioner asked what the world would be like 200 years in the future. Sreeram said “Whatever we say will be wrong. The amount of change we will see in 200 years makes it impossible to predict.”
Janice Shaw, a chemistry and physics teacher from West Philadelphia Catholic High School, said “I love to come to events like this because this is how I get a jump start to give enthusiasm to the kids I meet every day.”
Paul McGibney, a chemistry teacher at Ridley High School, Philadelphia, said “I get my kids involved in materials science by using organic LEDs and carbon nanotubes for classroom projects. Where do you see nanotechnology being incorporated in materials in the future?”
Pappas said practical large-scale use was still in the future. Sreeram gave examples of current uses of nanotechnology in catalysts and microelectronics. “In the case of carbon nanotubes, we need to separate out is it a technology looking for an application or the other way around.”
|A.N. Sreeram (left) and Ryan Dirkx.|
Following Sreeram, Dirkx said, “There is fundamental difference between bulk material properties and what happens when you downscale it.” He described the change in properties from bulk, to thin coating to nanoscale as discontinuous. “There is a lot for us to do in this nanospace to develop new materials.”
The final question of the event went to Steven Freeman, who teaches innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. He asked for an example of radical change versus the incremental changes described in much of the discussion.
Connelly answered first. “I think there is a basic change in the way biology is going to impact the materials sciences. We engineer biological process and produce very specific products at room temperature, atmospheric pressure and in aqueous media with no exotic metals.”
Pappas said the incremental advances in materials over the past 20 to 30 years add up a major change. “Breakthroughs are the sum of incremental changes over time,” he said.
See videos of the event at http://discovermagazine.com/events/chf/chf-advanced-materials-stories-of-innovation.
Neil Gussman <NeilG@chemheritage.org> works at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. CHF shares common goals with, and is an Associated Organization of, IUPAC.
Page last modified 5 September 2012.
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