"This article was published in our November 2017 newsletter". Sign up here.
When people talk about the importance of modern materials research, they often draw an analogy to the early stages of human cultural evolution – like the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. This is hardly surprising given that traditional tools shaped our early development. In just the same way, new materials could determine our future, because they are one of the keys to economic development.
A young and dynamic cross-disciplinary field
Modern materials research is seen as the engine of innovation: in medicine and information technology, energy supply, industrial processes and vehicle construction. It is estimated that up to 70 percent of all new products are based on new materials. One reason why materials science is a key technology when it comes to economic development is that natural resources are in increasingly short supply. Materials research only evolved to become a discipline in its own right in the late twentieth century. It is a cross-disciplinary field involving physics, chemistry, engineering and molecular biology.
Sustainable production processes
Researchers in as many as nine different disciplines work together at the Cluster of Excellence Engineering of Advanced Materials (EAM) at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in the south of Germany. The 200 scientists in this research network, which was established ten years ago, are searching for materials with tailor-made properties. Among them are also catalytic materials that are needed to accelerate reactions in the chemicals industry.
Recently, a team of chemists, physicists and chemical engineers there discovered a new class of catalysts: a tear-shaped alloy containing a high proportion of the element gallium. In petrochemical plants, this could make the process of chemical dehydrogenation – which involves splitting off hydrogen – more efficient and sustainable in future. Currently, the facilities used to do this become clogged with soot after just ten minutes and have to be cleaned. With the new catalyst, this chemical reaction could continue without interruption for 100 hours. That is not the only conceivable application, however. The new catalytic process could also be used for alternative drive technology, namely to produce hydrogen – the fuel of the future – in vehicles themselves.
Light, lighter, magnesium
An alloy – a combination of two or more metals – is also the focus at the MagIC – Magnesium Innovation Centre, which is part of the Helmholtz Centre for Materials and Coastal Research in Geesthacht in northern Germany. However, it is not better catalysts but lightweight materials that are the goal of the research being conducted here.
Magnesium may be four times lighter than steel and less than half the weight of aluminium, but it is not very tough. Equipped with their own smelting and rolling plant, the materials scientists at the MagIC are conducting experiments to find ways of using alloys to make the material stronger and more pliable. If they succeed, magnesium could be used in cars and aircraft much more often than in the past, thereby reducing their weight. This would save energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in conventional engines.
Apart from applications in transport, lightweight magnesium is also regarded as a promising material for medical implants. Thus innovations in materials research are relevant to all kinds of different areas, and have the potential to improve our world.
Cluster of Excellence Engineering of Advanced Materials (EAM)
Researchers at the Cluster of Excellence Engineering of Advanced Materials collaborate on an interdisciplinary basis with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Systems and Device Technology IISB and other institutions. Graduates wishing to embark on a PhD in materials research can apply to the Graduate School Advanced Materials and Processes.