Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On the Potential of Materials Science and Engineering

In conversations I've had with industry, there is some agreement that materials science and engineering as a discipline is not being utilized to its full potential.  These sentiments are particularly strong for some large and broad areas such as sustainability and building science.  Consider a key driver, cost: a) the cheapest engineering materials by weight are concretes, ceramics (e.g. marble and sandstone), low-alloy steels, and some woods (e.g. particle-board); and b) the cheapest engineering materials by volume are concretes, polymer foams, and woods (again, particle-board).  The residence of these materials in buildings is perhaps unexpected.  A second driver, the embodied energy of a material is slightly more abstract; it is generally taken to mean the amount of energy needed to produce that material - a particularly important parameter that has been used to measure sustainability.  The engineering materials with the lowest production energy are again the concretes, ceramics, woods, and low-alloy steels.  The correlation between these two drivers is shown in the Figure below (source: Cambridge Engineering Selector). 
Production Energy versus Cost for Engineering Materials (Click on Figure to Enlarge)
The correlation is not linear nor is it complete: there are "gaps" which can be filled by creating new materials, composites, or hybrids between existing materials.  This is the basic theory behind Prof. Emeritus Mike Ashby's Material Property Space Maps (e.g., see paper here): a concept which has gained a lot of ground in materials science and engineering over recent years; and a concept which holds a great deal of information on the potential of materials science and engineering.

Of course, the utility and employment of engineering materials is more complex.  There are supply chains, production volumes, established performance codes and standards, and comfort levels with proven successes and limitations.  There is also an underlying rule of thumb that says it takes about 15 years for new materials to come to market.  But that shouldn't halt the discussion: the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Council (CMHC), for example, has demonstrated their interest in progressive design with new materials in projects like the Canuhome; and the CMHC has expressed to me personally an interest in further developing and showcasing new materials in practical applications.   

I've outlined here one of the primary areas I hope to focus on with this blog.  But there are others which can also be considered within the scope of designable material property spaces.  It is my aim with this blog to focus on this theme within the framework of materials science and engineering, while also bringing to light some of the more interesting new materials and new spins on old ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment