Super materials of tomorrow are here today

Imagine if you could make windows out of transparent metal.

You could hit them with a hammer, and instead of shattering they would dint.

If your phone screen was made out of this metal, you would never have to worry about dropping it again. The screen would never break.

Transparent metal has been talked about for years, but it’s never come to fruition. At least, that’s what most people think.

The truth is, it has. It’s already being used as “bulletproof glass”.

Here’s what a cylinder of transparent aluminium looks like:

Source: Jo Pitesky’s Twitter

But the thing about transparent aluminium is that it’s not really a metal. But it’s not a glass either. It’s actually a ceramic.

This means, unlike in my imagination, it doesn’t dint when struck. It will still shatter. But it will withstand much, much more force than any glass on the market.

1.6” of this stuff can withstand a 50-caliber armour-piercing round, as you can see in the video below:

If you watch the video, you’ll see that traditional bulletproof glass pales in comparison to this transparent aluminium.

A sheet over twice as thick as the transparent aluminium one fails to stop the round.

Transparent aluminium is four times harder than normal glass. It’s 85% as hard as sapphire glass, but much less brittle.

In fact, it would – and probably will soon – be the ideal material for smartphone screens.

It may not just dint when dropped. But it would be much, much harder to crack than the “Gorilla Glass” that’s used right now.

Its main manufacturer is a company called Surmet. For a company that makes such a futuristic technology, its website could use some work.

Still if you want to know more about transparent aluminium, or ALON as it’s called, there’s a lot of information on Surmet’s website.

I first heard about transparent aluminium about five years ago. And it’s great to see it’s now being used in real-world applications.

This got me thinking about some other super materials I’ve heard about over the years. I wanted to see if they had similar success stories. And so next on this list is aerogel.

NASA’s aerogel is now available in jackets

Aerogel is the kind of material that sounds like an impossibility when you first hear about it.

It is a gel that has had its liquid replaced with air. It’s known as “solid smoke” or “frozen smoke” because it is translucent and impossibly light.

It is also one of the most insulating substances ever discovered. As you can see in the picture below, it can withstand extreme heat with no problem.

a gel that has had its liquid replaced with airSource: public domain

According to Wikipedia:

Aerogel was first created by Samuel Stephens Kistler in 1931, as a result of a bet with Charles Learned over who could replace the liquid in “jellies” with gas without causing shrinkage.

So it’s been around a lot longer than you would think. It’s actually used to insulate NASA spacecraft.

As NASA writes:

The possible applications for the material were obvious, but pure silica aerogel had a pretty major downside. Silica, one of the key ingredients in glass, is brittle: as an aerogel, it would crack under the slightest pressure. So for decades, silica aerogel was hardly ever used.

In the 1990s, NASA helped change that.

In 1992, Kennedy Space Center’s James Fesmire, the mechanical engineer responsible for managing cryogenic propellant systems design at the launch pads, had an idea for a flexible aerogel insulator—a composite with the same ability to stop heat as traditional silica aerogel but one which would solve the brittleness problem. He wanted to use it to insulate the equipment that stored and transferred liquid fuel for the Space Shuttle, which needed to be kept at temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero.

And reading the above, I also found out there is a company that’s putting aerogel into jackets. And they aren’t even that expensive.

The company is called Oros, and its flagship jacket costs $270. If you’ve ever been in the market for a proper extreme weather jacket, you’ll know that’s a decent price.

Just how good is it? Well one of its customers claimed they got hot wearing it in -33oC. Another said they took it to Greenland and used it in -50oC with no problem.

But perhaps the most promising super material of today is… yes, you guessed it: graphene.

Graphene mass production has become a reality

Whenever people talk about wonder materials, they inevitably bring up graphene.

Graphene:

  • Conducts electricity faster than any other known material
  • Is the strongest material ever discovered
  • And it is only one atom thick.

It was a British discovery by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov from the University of Manchester in 2004.

The way they made graphene was by placing sticky tape on a block of graphite and then pulling it off.

Given its almost magical properties, this graphene material promised to change practically every industry in the world, from construction to electronics and computers, to batteries and energy transfer.

The only problem was, it was extremely hard to make in large volume.

The method the Manchester University scientists used wasn’t practical for bigger applications.

So everything we’ve heard about graphene since has been mostly theoretical. If you can’t mass produce the stuff, you can’t use it in industry.

Which is why MIT’s breakthrough in April is such a massive event.

From MIT:

MIT engineers have developed a continuous manufacturing process that produces long strips of high-quality graphene.

This process will make mass production of graphene a reality. It is the first real step in graphene fulfilling on all its promises.

And as more and more efficient methods of producing graphene emerge, we can expect to see graphene change the face of everything.

Perhaps one of the most promising uses, which MIT’s method if very well suited for, is desalination of the seawater.

As Futurist Speaker writes:

Water and graphene have an unusual relationship. Water can pass through it, but almost nothing else can. Aluminum-oxide, currently used in many water filtration applications, becomes instantly outdated by graphene’s strength and rigidity. Researchers at Lockheed claim a graphene filter will reduce energy costs of reverse osmosis desalination by 99%.

As you can imagine, given all its possible applications, the investment potential for graphene is huge.

That’s one of the main reasons my colleague Eoin Treacy is so excited about it. He has been following the graphene story from the start.

And what’s more, he’s found a very smart way to invest in it. Through his extensive research, he’s discovered a small company at the cutting edge of graphene development. If you want to know more about it, and how you can invest in it too, you can take out a trial of Eoin’s Frontier Tech Investor here.

It’s crazy to think these three super materials are already being used in the real world. And it makes you wonder what other discoveries might be just around the corner.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Commodities

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