Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scarcity of Raw Materials

A block of Indium metal.  (Source:
The most abundant elements in the earth's upper continental crust are, not surprisingly, the rock-forming elements such as Oxygen, Aluminum, Silicon, Calcium, and Iron [1].  On the other hand, there are a number of elements which are more scarce but have become critical in technological devices and products; as a result, they should require more careful consideration regarding their use, recycling, and long-term engineering investment.  This is a topic of discussion in this month's edition of the scientific journal Nature Materials [1-3].  For the present post, I thought I'd bring to light some of their informative and detailed work (italics in all cases mine). 

Elements and Their Scarcity

For an overall perspective [1]:

"There are two reasons for chemical elements to become scarce.  Some ... are simply not that abundant anywhere in the Earth's crust, whereas others are found in only a few places, which might create political issues for their supply." A few examples are the following:

Rare-Earth Metal Neodymium [Nd].  This element is a key component of small, lightweight, strong, and permanent magnets used in emerging technologies from portable electronics to hybrid vehicles to wind turbines.  King [3] has outlined approximate figures of 1 kg Nd used in every Toyota Prius and 300 kg Nd used in every wind turbine.  As China mines 97% of the global rare-earth metal supply, they possess great control of the market price as well as quality of exported form (i.e. low-value raw ore or high-value finished products) [3].  As King puts it, "if there is only one supplier there is always concern."

Tellurium [Te].  Cadmium Telluride [CdTe] solar cells are [3] "probably the highest-performing solar cells if you look at the cost per kilowatt." But Te is also essentially a by-product of copper mining, which complicates its acquisition.  According to King, Te "is produced in such small quantities that the total value of copper produced by a mine completely outweighs the value of Tellurium.  The Tellurium production is never going to drive a miner to open a mine."

Indium [In].  This element - more specifically, the compound Indium-Tin-Oxide (ITO) - is a key component in flat-panel displays, touch screens, and cell phones.  In contrast to the rare-earth metals above, Indium is considered a truly rare metal with an estimated worldwide reserve base (2007) of 6,000 tonnes [4].  Like Tellurium, Indium is obtained through mining of other materials such as Zinc [5] - and Canada produces a large percentage of the global volume (~33% [4]).  But with rarity comes high and volatile prices (fluctuating between $300-$500 per kilogram) [5], which can cause great difficulty in securing a supply chain for a product.

Platinum [Pt].  This element has been used for some time as part of catalysts.  With an estimated reserve base of 77,000 tonnes it is not quite as rare as Indium [4]; but the production of Platinum-group metals is concentrated primarily in South Africa [2,4], thus making unpredictable the cost of this metal.

Phosphorus [P].  Although a physically-abundant element, Phosphorus is also considered vulnerable because of its far-reaching inclusion in a wide range of materials and chemicals - specifically fertilizer.  As outlined in [2], "a shortage of Phosphorus fertilizer would cause significant damage to agriculture, resulting in an immediate food crisis."   

Identifying Materials Science Limitations and Solutions

As outlined in [1,2], Japan - a country consuming high volumes of scarce elements but without the ability to mine them - very early realized the problem of element shortages; Japan then spearheaded the development of an 'Element Strategy Initiative', which focuses on four key components: 1) substitution, 2) regulation, 3) reduction, and 4) recycling. 

Materials science and engineering can achieve advances in these four components of this initiative, perhaps clearest in substitution, reduction, and recycling.  First, new and less-scarce materials can be developed as alternatives to those described above.  Outlined in [2], recent examples have shown that novel lime-alumina compounds can replace ITO in some functionality.  Other recent work has focused on carbon-based replacements for ITO.  Moreover, in some cases the supply of an element provides a hard limit to the reach of a new technology: for example, mining all the world's Platinum for automobile fuel cells would be able to produce less than 5% of the global car production [2].  There are many examples of substitution-type materials science developments constantly on-going, each weighed against the current benchmarks in terms of performance, but also weight, cost, lifetime, stability, etc.  But as King [3] points out, an exact swap is not likely to happen: instead, the re-design of the material will require the re-design of the product - a reiterative process which itself possesses considerable work.

Second, improved materials product development can help reduce required material volumes.  In addition, increased efficiency of raw materials processing can help reduce front-end waste as well as enable mining from more low-grade sources [2].  Third, increased focus on materials life-cycle design - "something that is really not yet done in any significant manner" [3] - can help return scarce materials to the supply chain.  The potential value of this third component is considerable in some cases.  In Japan, for example, there are what are called 'urban mines' consisting of discarded high-tech devices; in these 'mines', Nakamura and Sato [2] cite volumes of "6,800 tons of gold (16% of the world reserves), 60,000 tons of silver (22%), and 1,700 tons of indium (15.5%)..."  In addition, as outlined in [1], "the use of rare earths in electronic gadgets has risen so much that their concentration in computers is actually higher than that in mines.  It pays to recycle." 

In short, while the context of the articles discussed focuses on scarcity, the same sentiments may be applied to even the most conventional and abundant materials.  The supplies of all elements will change over time, as will their costs (both monetary and otherwise).  In [1], it is thought that "eventually, market forces will of course even out such imbalances in supply and demand."  And with each cycle or fluctuation [2]:

"Instead of regarding this situation merely as a crisis to overcome, we should convert it to an opportunity to create a new materials science, new materials and a new industry."

[1] Elements in short supply (Editorial).  Nature Materials, Vol. 10 (2011) p. 157.
[2] E. Nakamura and K. Sato.  Managing the scarcity of chemical elements.  Nature Materials, Vol. 10 (2011) pp. 158-161.
[3] Purveyor of the rare (Interview by J. Heber).  Nature Materials, Vol. 10 (2011) pp. 162-163.
[4] D. Cohen.  Earth audit.  New Scientist, Vol. 194, Issue 2605 (2007) pp. 34-41.
[5] Mineral Commodity Summaries 2010.  U.S. Geological Survey (2010) pp. 74-75.  (Available On-Line.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Science and The Internet

Computers and their users.  (Source: Wendy Rejan.)
For this week's post, I thought I'd reflect on a few light tidbits I've stumbled across concerning science and The Internet.  (The "lightness" of this post I hope is captured by the image above.)  Beneath the surface of such a topic, however, there is a much deeper and richer picture I think is worth some further consideration - something I'll tackle in a future post.

Google Science.  Google Scholar (and the closely-connected Google Books) are tools instrumental in accessing a great deal of scientific and engineering literature (mostly peer-reviewed).  I use both on a constant basis, as evidenced by the references in my previous posts.  Closer to the material world, Google Patents provides a valuable reservoir improving fluency in intellectual property, a topic which should be as quickly visible to match its fast (and influential) progress.  For the current and future scientist and engineer, these tools demonstrate great value; and at a price of free, they far outperform their cost.  Finally, these tools also offer clarity, i.e. direction to more scientifically-accepted data closer to the intended targets; they also offer the credibility of expertise and peer-review, a shortfall of fully-open resources such as Wikipedia. 

While this may be old news to most of you readers, it is a more recent (but perhaps under-promoted) event held by Google that possesses a more far-reaching implications for science and The Internet: a global science-fair competition for students aged 13 to 18.  When a company like Google believes that "science can change the world," the reach, the scope, and even the face of science can certainly expect to undergo revolutionary changes.

The Value of a Blog in Science.  John Dupuis, the Head of Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University, wrote in early 2009 an article called "If you don't have a blog, you don't have a resume."  Blogs can be a particularly useful tool not only for personal or professional writing; considering the time for science and engineering developments to reach market maturity, blogs can further be a tool to help evaluate and generate market interest, and to more personally communicate an emerging technology.  The materials industry may benefit most from the utility of such tools because it tends to have such a long time to market maturity (15-20 years, nearly as long as blogs have existed!).  Overall, a blog can help contribute more rapidly the kind of meaningful information useful to the "scientific commons"; this in turn can provide information valuable to more rapid technological commercial developments.

The Internet is Wasted on the Young.  ScienceBlogger Dr. Myers has recently written an article bringing to light a group of 8-10-year-old children who, with some supervisory help, wrote and had published a peer-reviewed scientific article in the journal Biology Letters [1].  In Dr. Myers' words, "The experiment wasn't that dramatic, but it's very cool to see the way the students' brains are operating to understand the result..."  Such exercises may become increasingly-frequent phenomena as younger scientists- and engineers-to-be undertake a personal interest followed by internet research, scientific collaboration via social networking, and writing scientific blogs to communicate and discuss their findings.  Materials science may not be the fastest discipline to adopt this progress, as analytical machines and characterization devices are costly; but as a childhood teacher of mine once taught me, most adults can't resist a) an inquisitive child in need and b) a well-written letter (or email).

The Message.  In a nutshell, The Internet isn't going anywhere.  But it is becoming an increasingly useful tool for the engineer's and scientist's toolboxes; and it should be used with its full potential in mind.

[1] P.S. Blackawton, et al.  Blackawton bees.  Biology Letters, doi: 10.1098/rsbi.2010.1057 (2010).  (Available On-Line.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Materials Science and Engineering in Sports

I've previously noted that, in some cases, materials in sports equipment can possess a placebo effect.  But in other cases, the role of materials science and engineering is real to performance and critical to safety.  In this week's post I'll focus on examples of both. 

Engineering a 105.4 mph Slapshot

Zdeno Chara's slapshot - the one that recently registered a new speed record - leads to the questions How does he do it? and What is his stick made of?  The answer to both questions can be answered with materials selection and knowledge of how the material has been tailored to the user.

The choice of material for a stick can be understood by considering the mechanism by which hockey sticks deflect.  At its simplest, the stick can be considered as a beam in three-point bending (Figure 1).  The outer two points are made up by 1) the hand at the top of the stick and 2) the ice surface; the hand closest to the ice provides the third point, adding force in a direction opposite the other two points. 

Figure 1.  Zdeno Chara's record-breaking slapshot.

During a slapshot, the stick stores up energy as it flexes.  In order to maximize energy without requiring too great a deflection - the energy must be released quickly, after all - a key material property of the stick is targeted: its Young's modulus.  The modulus of the material and the shape of the beam make up the stiffness; given a standard shape, beam stiffness increases with modulus. 

A materials engineering solution, especially in sports equipment, would not be complete without considering weight.  In particular, materials with greater modulus also tend to have increased densities.  A suitable engineering material can be selected by performing design analysis and optimization (for reference, see Prof. Michael F. Ashby's book [1] as an extensive resource in this field).  Specifically for beams in bending, the performance metric to be maximized is the square root of modulus, divided by density [1].  By comparing this metric for a wide range of engineering materials (see Figure 5.13, p. 98 in [1]), two groups emerge as optimal choices: woods and carbon-fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) composites.  On a relative scale, the latter CFRP materials provide modulus values nearly 10-fold greater than those of former wood materials.  Zdeno Chara's stick is a composite, the Easton Synergy EQ50.  But not just anyone can use it: you still need to be able to flex those stiff beams to get the necessary energy output. 

Materials to Combat Concussions

There are frequent reminders that concussions occur to athletes in a number of sports, e.g. hockey, football, and baseball.  ScienceBlogger Dr. Jeffrey H. Toney has recently centered a post around football helmets, focusing on a National Geographic report that studied the impacts sustained by a 21-year old University football player in a single season (over 500 hits).  Dr. Toney's basic message is that "currently used helmets may not offer sufficient protection, particularly in cases in which players experience hundreds of hits."  Concussions are also a key topic in hockey, which has led to much materials research and development such as the Messier Project and the M11 helmet.  Baseball players can experience personal contact with 100 mph-pitches, which in some cases have led to brain trauma.  In response, improved materials and helmets, e.g. Rawlings' S100 batting helmet, have been designed to withstand such an impact.

In a collision, energy is transmitted to the head and brain, based on the pre-collision masses and velocities of the two objects, e.g. the athlete and the opposition.  The post-collision velocity is determined through conservation of momentum.  To go from its pre-collision velocity to its post-collision velocity, the head undergoes a high rate of velocity change, i.e. a high acceleration.  There is a finite acceleration that the human head can withstand without damage to the brain.  The helmet aims to reduce the transmitted energy and thus the acceleration imparted to the head; the mechanism of energy absorption is therefore critical to head protection.  

Simplified, ideal materials for energy absorption undergo permanent deformation - this deformation expends energy, reducing that transmitted to the head.  The force required to deform such a material should be high enough to absorb a maximum amount of energy; but it can't be too high such that it requires less force to deform the head rather than deform the energy-absorbing material.  Cellular polymers, e.g. foams and expanded polymers, are well-known and useful energy-absorbing materials, and which also possess low weight critical for athletes [2].  More novel materials have also been developed which improve upon the load-bearing response: for example, in the M11 helmet, liners of tubular shapes have been designed to aid in energy absorption (dubbed Seven Technology).  Future endeavors may also incorporate shape-memory polymers to offer multiple-hit capacities.  But despite these advances, as Dr. Toney suggests above, there is still work to be done.

The Future of Materials in Sports

The two parts I've provided here represent opposing sides of the same coin: a development in one can require or enable a development in the other.  In some cases, however, increased equipment performance is seen as a threat; for example, Little League International has recently banned composite baseball bats because their Bat Performance Factor (BPF) increases with use.  This returns us to an issue I previously raised regarding the evolving perception of performance increases with material developments.  At present, this appears to be the one of the most important topics in sports, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.   

[1] M.F. Ashby.  Materials Selection in Mechanical Design, 3rd Edition.  Butterworth-Heinemann (2005). (Available On-Line.)
[2] M.F. Ashby, et al.  Metal Foams - A Design Guide.  Butterworth-Heinemann (2000).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Sustainable Materials Innovation

A recent article written by James Moody over at SEED Magazine [1] describes a new approach to getting around Intellectual Property (IP) roadblocks experienced in developing countries.  For example, in areas where food is in short supply, where it is insecure, or in areas where malnutrition is frequent, there are technologies which may solve these problems.  However [1]:

"Many key technologies are covered by patents, because the people and companies that have invested in research and development have a reasonable expectation for profits.  Companies have been making valuable patents available for humanitarian uses for years, but quite often it has been an ad hoc effort requiring intensive legal work and expense for both [Non-Governmental Organization] NGOs and corporations."

Companies require a sufficient market potential / size in order to justify spending the time, energy, and resources necessary to develop a product - be it food, drug, material, or otherwise.  In addition, the research and development of a new product can be slowed significantly navigating through the existing IP space and avoiding infringement.  Moody's proposed solution is a Global Responsibility License (GRL) - a modular or temporary release of patent information by a patent holder to a public or not-for-profit organization.  Such a license would allow the utility of patent information for 'non-market' uses, specifically for humanitarian and development purposes; the patent holder, meanwhile, retains the economic value of the patent while further developing a new market opportunity for it.

But is this the whole story?  And do the problems outlined by Moody translate to the materials industry and its innovations?  In order to answer these questions, I'll draw from previously published works on these subjects.

Conflict, Innovation, and IP

As described by Eisenberg and Nelson [2], fundamental innovation conflict arises when trying to divide between basic science and applied technology, or, alternatively, the public and private domains. "The challenge for public policy is to devise arrangements that preserve the great advantages of an open system for basic science while still preserving profit incentives for the creation of valuable new products."  Additional conflict arises when access to even basic science becomes restricted, such as through [2-4]: ownership of research results, inefficient patent pricing, broad patent scoping, or exclusivity licensing.  On the other hand, Nelson has argued that problems of 1) assembling permissions or licenses prior to performing work, and 2) access limitation by patent holders to research having high practical promise, are not significant and of limited evidence [3].

It has been said [2] that businesses, "driven by the hope of profit and the fear of competition, have a far better feel than government agencies for the kinds of new products the market wants and can respond more quickly to emerging demand and technological opportunities."  One example given is the development of medication for AIDS patients in sub-Saharan Africa.  In this case, government subsidized the access to these inventions made by private research and development groups [2].  Similarly, the One Laptop Per Child program was in part funded by the United Nations.  On the other hand is the drive of the scientific community to contribute significant research to the scientific commons.  As outlined in [2], public funding was instrumental in the Human Genome Project; it helped generate research results in the public domain, thereby making the human genome sequence freely available.

Aside from the examples provided above, there have been proposals to further improve the efficiency of general research and its navigation through IP space.  Nelson [3] describes the incorporation of a "kind of research exemption, analogous to the fair use exemptions in copyright law, into patent law."  However, the Bayh-Dole Act encourages Universities to claim IP rights to data or technology developed during publicly-funded research; this leaves industry less willing to provide such research exemptions [2,3].  A solution may be met if the exempted research was agreed not to be patented; but Nelson believes this kind of exemption may still require a trip through Congress.  As this appears to be the kind of solution proposed by Moody [1] - but for humanitarian instead of research purposes - some work would be required to clearly define the divide between the two.      

Application to Materials Industries

The method and pathway to innovation varies significantly from field to field [4,5]. In other words, while the solution proposed by Moody may apply to some industries, new materials and their innovation do not necessarily require the same pathway or experience the same difficulties.

While considered the "source of revolutionary technologies," Maine et al [6] argue that there are two key barriers to management of new materials: 1) the long gestation period between material discovery and market introduction, and 2) the large cumulative investment necessary to commercialize them.  Of the former, I previously noted that a time period of 15 years can be required; Maine [7] lists examples of new materials innovations which have gestation periods of 20 years or more.  These mismatches and delays can be due to a number of reasons, such as separation between material and end user, unsuitable research & development (R&D) corporate strategies, or flawed R&D valuation methodologies [6].  Because of the significant costs and risks involved, therefore, IP and its ownership is critical to extract value from materials innovations; it is also critical to sustainably guide future material developments [6,7].  Maine et al [6] have recently developed an Investment Methodology for Materials (IMM) in order to help focus industry 1) on materials development and investment and 2) reduce this gestation time.  Critical in the IMM is Value Capture, the IMM component that pays particular attention to the material appropriability, i.e. the measure of degree of IP protection.

IP space traversal in the materials industry is also unique.  For example, technical alliances and collaborations are frequently undertaken between companies; collaborations preferred are generally of the small, simple, flexible, temporary, and collective type [8], somewhat analogous to Moody's proposal.  Through collaboration, a number of benefits can be realized [8], most notably the increase in innovation speed and avoidance of roadblocks by existing patents.  In fact, Niosi [8] notes that Canadian advanced materials companies could easily "invent around" existing patents, or they would simply label the results as trade secrets.  In cases where IP was generated, the main problem was found to be its division between partners, which could be defined at the outset [8].

Sustainable Materials Innovation

The materials industry, despite being a unique field, may still encounter the difficulties outlined by Moody n future innovation.  In particular, ownership of research results, inefficient patent pricing, broad patent scoping, or exclusivity licensing may increasingly exclude users from performing research or otherwise socially valuable activities [2,3].  While ownership of research results may be bypassed with non-patent agreements; while costs may be relieved by the allocation of public funds in cases where private firms have little financial incentive; while patent scoping may be narrowed through the patent office and courts; and while license acquisition can be resolved by patent holders making information widely available and on reasonable terms, considerable work is needed to examine the real economic cost of the current system [3].

Epilogue: Sustainable Materials Innovation in Canada

Canadian manufactured goods focus more on the use of traditional rather than advanced materials [8].  As a result, in Canada there is generally a small market for advanced materials development, and weakness of their production and use in the private sector [see 8].  Sustainable materials innovation in Canada may then possess a cautious optimism.  Due to the sheer volume of these native, traditional materials, sustainable materials innovation in Canada is well-suited to focus on their appropriation.  On the other hand, by focusing too narrowly on such traditional materials, Canada risks the danger of falling behind others in emerging materials markets and industries, missing out on new high-technology industries, and slowly diminishing its market share.

[1] J. Moody.  On re-thinking IP.  SEED Magazine, January 31, 2011.  (Available On-Line.)
[2] R.S. Eisenberg, R.R. Nelson.  Public vs. proprietary science: a fruitful tension?  Academic Medicine, Vol. 77 (2002) pp. 1392-1399. (Available On-Line.)
[3] R.R. Nelson.  The market economy, and the scientific commons.  Research Policy, Vol. 33 (2004) pp. 455-471.  (Available On-Line.)
[4] R.P. Merges, R.R. Nelson.  On the complex economics of patent scope.  Columbia Law Review, Vol. 90 (1990), pp. 839-916.  (Text Available On-Line.)
[5] S.G. Winter.  Patents in complex contexts: incentives and effectiveness.  In: Owning Scientific and Technical Information (1998) pp. 41-60.
[6] E. Maine, D. Probert, M. Ashby.  Investing in new materials: a tool for technology managers.  Technovation, Vol. 25 (2005) pp. 15-23.
[7] E. Maine.  Innovation and Adoption of New Materials.  Ph.D. Thesis, University of Cambridge (2000).
[8] J. Niosi.  Strategic partnerships in Canadian advanced materials.  R&D Management, Vol. 23 (1993) pp. 17-27.