Sunday, June 2, 2024

"Getting materials out of the lab"

From Works in Progress, May 17:

Inventing new materials is only the first step. Getting them into mass production and use is just as hard.

I’m writing these words using plastic keys, on a composite wood desk, looking at a Gorilla Glass screen. The screen is linked to a machined-aluminum computer, inside of which doped silicon switches on and off a billion times per second.

One hundred and fifty years ago, not a single one of these materials existed.

Materials are not charismatic technologies like cars or computers. Yet they enable almost every one of humanity’s technical achievements: rebar unlocked the skyscrapers of the 1920s; chemically strengthened glass delivered us smartphones; and stainless steel, not created until 1913, brought with it the clinical equipment upon which modern medicine depends.

New materials create fundamentally new human capabilities. And yet, despite university teams regularly  announcing triumphantly that they’ve created a material with seemingly magical properties like artificial muscles made out of carbon nanotubes or ‘limitless power’ from graphene, new materials-enabled human capabilities have been rare in the past 50 years.

Why is there such a gap between headlines and reality when it comes to new materials? Is there anything we can do about it?

The only way to answer those questions is to understand how a material goes from a tiny test tube sample to a commodity measured in megatons. Each step in the process requires different skills, mindsets, and resources. Each step is also governed by different incentives that make sense locally but create deadly traps for the entire process. Bypassing these traps needs systems-level solutions that take into account each step of the process – whether in policy, organizational reform, or new institutions – and unlock the progress that new materials enable.

The journey from lab to market

Inventing a new material is the beginning of a long process.

Take carbon fiber composites. You’re almost certainly familiar with these, particularly if you’ve ridden a surprisingly light bike or seen its distinctive crosshatched weave pattern on a car dashboard or phone case.

Looking at carbon fiber composites through an electron microscope, you observe strands of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, woven into mats and layered with a resin such as epoxy. Carbon fiber’s tensile strength (the amount of load it can bear under tension before it breaks) is similar to steel, but the material is much less dense. So if you care about both weight and strength – as you do when you’re designing vehicles from a supercar to a Boeing 787 – carbon fiber is the material for you.

Modern materials like these carbon fiber composites are born in laboratories. Researchers at universities or industrial research labs do test tube–scale experiments, which can produce mind-blowing results. Carbon fiber first showed great promise in 1960 when Richard Millington patented a process to create fibers made of 99 percent carbon.

However, at lab scale, materials don’t do anything. Most people wouldn’t want a rope that is a centimeter long, or a battery that lasts three minutes. Leaving the lab requires bridging many orders of magnitude: from producing less than 0.001 kilograms (one gram) per day in a lab to more than 1,000 kilograms (one tonne) per day in a factory.

You can think of lab-scale materials as the most artisanal products in the world, painstakingly handcrafted by people with advanced degrees. Like any artisanal product, lab-scale materials are expensive. Trying to mass-produce these materials by simply increasing the number of fume hoods, test tubes, and pipette wielders would make them cost billions of dollars per kilogram. After a material is invented, we need to discover cheaper ways to produce it, since price per quantity has a dramatic effect on how much it can be used.

We call this process ‘scaling’, but to me that word is frustratingly vague. It bundles together many different problems that need to be solved to decrease cost and increase yield. The three key ones are:....