Five game-changing material innovations for a cleaner future

The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS) released its Innovation Impact Report last week. This is the final report of a three-part study which identifies the role of materials science and engineering (MSE) in addressing the energy, carbon reduction, and economic development needs in the United States. The study was launched in 2010, and was co-ordinated on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Advance Manufacturing Office.

The opportunities identified in this study could save more than 2,800 trillion British thermal units (TBtu) of energy in the United States every year. This is more than the combined energy generated by wind, solar, biomass waste, geothermal in the United States. These opportunities may potentially eliminate 430 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2 emissions—about one-third of total CO2 emissions in the United States.

In the first phase of the study the Energy Materials Blue Ribbon Panel, representing experts from industry, academia, and government, identified areas of the U.S. energy sector and MSE research which would have the most significant impact. The second phase identified product and process innovations which could deliver the most energy savings and carbon emission reductions. In the final phase of the study, nearly 150 leading experts in MSE were asked to quantify the magnitude of the potential impacts of these material innovations, and evaluate the time needed to commercially implement these innovations.

Diran Apelian, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and chair of the study’s Energy Materials blue Ribbon Panel said in a media release, “The opportunities articulated in the Innovation Impact Report are powerful in that they make the case and the value proposition is clear.”

Material innovations which have the potential to reduce energy and carbon intensity are not just solar cells or long range car batteries. Technologies which improve manufacturing processes by increasing productivity, capturing lost energy, or reducing equipment wear are also critical. Here are five advances that will soon prove instrumental to a cleaner future:

(1)   Functional surface technologies

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Functional surface technologies involve material surfaces that serve specific functions. For example, high-temperature and thermal barrier coatings applied to gas turbines allow them to operate at higher temperatures for longer periods of time, improving plant efficiency. The coatings prevent heat induced failures. Currently, the most advanced high-temperature coatings are stable up to 1200˚C but the stability is expected to increased and allow temperatures of 1400˚C by 2020.

(2)   Materials integration in clean energy systems

Photo credit: masterbond.com

Many different materials go into making a vehicle. The benefits of individual materials are combined to produce an optimized product; however the vehicle’s performance depends on how well different materials can be joined together. For example, advance joining processes that can seamlessly join vehicle structures such as the frames and bodies would allow lighter-weight materials to be used. These materials must be joined in a way that keeps the desired properties of individual parts without introducing defects such as improper bonding. This can be accomplished with adhesive bonding.  Think–a high strength “krazy glue”. Adhesive bonding joins dissimilar materials using an adhesive substance, typically a natural/synthetic polymer, rather than by welding/soldering. It’s a high strength and lightweight joining technique and is poised to be a key technology to reduce the total vehicle weight. A 10% reduction in vehicle weight translates into a 6% increase in fuel economy in cars and an 8% increased in light-trucks.

(3)   Higher-performance materials

Photo credit: T.M.O.F. on flickr.com

Thermoelectric materials have the potential to convert waste heat from a vehicle’s exhaust gas into useful electricity. They would improve the vehicle’s fuel economy by reducing the electricity required to run the lights, stereo, electronic braking, etc. Furthermore, no additional CO2 emissions would be released. Such advances could save 781 TBtu of energy and reduce 53 MMT of CO2 emissions from the annual U.S. energy consumption and CO2 emissions of cars and light-duty trucks.

(4)   New materials manufacturing processes

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Net-shaping processing is a manufacturing method which produces the product very close to its final shape, and does not require secondary processing and/or machining. Near net-shape casting/strip casting is a net-shape processing method used in the iron and steel industry, which combines casting and hot rolling into one step. This technique eliminates the need to reheat the metal before rolling it and can potentially save 400 TBtu of energy per year, in the form of natural gas (assuming the industry will consume 1578 TBtu). This also translates into an annual reduction of 16.7 MMT of CO2 emissions.

(5)   Materials and process development acceleration tools

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Materials and process development acceleration tools are computer-based tools that reduce the time and cost of applying materials and process innovations to commercial applications. For example, integrated computational materials engineering modeling platforms combine information on materials properties with product performance analysis, and manufacturing processes. This allows materials-related processes such as welding to be modeling while component production and degradation from usage are also considered. QuesTek, an American company, has utilized computational technology to design and produce new steel alloys used in landing gears.

The technologies listed above are by no means new—thermoelectric materials have been around since the 1950s. However, further advances in material development and manufacturing processes show significant potential for reducing energy intensity and carbon emissions in a variety of sectors.

What’s impressive about these advances is that the technology is projected to have an impact within 2-10 years. This is extremely fast considering new materials discoveries typically require 10-20 years to be developed into commercial products. All of these advances highlight ways industries can be more energy efficient, productive, and profitable.

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Newise. (2012, March 6). The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS) Releases Findings of Two-Year Study that Identifies Potentially Game-Changing Advances in Energy Materials. Retrieved March 13, 2012, from http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/586399/?sc=rssn&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+NewswiseScinews+%28Newswise%3A+SciNews%29

The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society. (2012). Innovation Impact Report: Key Findings. [Report].

The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society. (2012). Innovation Impact Report: Linking Transformational Materials and Processing for an Energy Efficient and Low-Carbon Economy. [Report].

The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society. (2012). Materials: Foundation for the clean energy age. [Report].

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