Engineering new functions into existing materials is the new frontier of engineering with the potential to solve many of the world’s most intractable problems, the Royal Academy of Engineering was told at a conference held on the 11 November.

Affordable, secure energy, reducing pollution, halting environmental degradation and dealing with the health issues of an ageing population – all of these are issues that could be improved and perhaps even solved using new materials engineered from the molecular scale upwards.

World-leading experts speaking at the Academy’s conference on Innovation in Materials heard that a combination of physics, chemistry and biology is creating not just new kinds of materials but also making possible a host of deep economic, social and cultural changes.

In a keynote address, materials scientist and broadcaster Professor Mark Miodownik, said that the 21st century offers the possibility of innovation reaching far beyond the scientists and engineers usually involved in developing new materials.

Professor Miodownik said: “In the 20th century, innovation was about finding out how materials work, about the different structures inside materials.”

Now that some of that understanding is in place, one of the 21st century challenges is to link the different elements back together. Part of that is to apply our knowledge of the nano-scale to much larger structures, systems and problems.

“The big challenge is to link up the different scales: biology already does that,” he said. “We have different people who are expert at the different scales and we need them to talk together. That means involving people like the architects, chefs and jewellers who use materials as well.”

Scaling up nanotechnology’s benefits could produce “big gains”, according to Professor Miodownik, but that is just one of many issues where innovation in materials will potentially have far-reaching benefits. “In the 21st century we’re not necessarily about trying to get more material wealth; we’re also about trying not to trash the planet,” he said.

The change of emphasis from production to sustainability has huge implications in areas such as energy supply and recycling.

Professor Ravi Silva from Surrey University, spoke about the “adventurous, revolutionary and world-class” research which is aiming to extract energy from the 165,000 Terawatts that the sun provides each day, more than 1,000 times world energy needs even for projections to 2050. Wider use of nano-scale structures offers the promise of doing this.

According to Professor Silva, tackling the world’s energy problems is key to solving most of the other global issues, as cheap and plentiful energy could enable the production of clean water, help to eradicate disease and improve quality of life for billions of people.

“Closed-loop” or “circular” recycling systems, in which products are designed to be fully recycled and their materials reused, could change the equation in product design. Professor Miodownik said that this is a 21st century imperative: “We’re not a credible set of people if we create sophisticated stuff and then put it in holes in the ground as landfill,” he said. “It makes it seem that we’re not intelligent enough to have done the full lifecycle.”

Other topics covered in the conference included:

  • Using synthetic biology to design and control biological materials and produce functions that do not exist in nature, such as using DNA as an engineering material.
  • Additive manufacturing techniques (3D printing) that could enable implants such as hip replacements to be “grown” so that they are personalised to the individual

“Smart” materials that contain information about themselves to combat crime or that react in some predetermined way to an external stimulus that could be used in sensors or protective clothing.

Notes for editors

  1. Innovation in Materials is the fifth in a series of “Innovation in…” conferences run by the Royal Academy of Engineering exploring the roots of modern innovation in important business and industrial sectors. The conference was organised in partnership with the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and The Knowledge Transfer Network. Previous conferences have covered innovation in construction, in business systems, in the automotive sector and in medical devices. A sixth conference on Innovation in Energy is scheduled for March 2014.
  2. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering.

    We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.

For more information please contact

Giorgio De Faveri at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0655; email: Giorgio De Faveri