In my research group at Caltech, I’m studying new material properties that come about when you take nanoscale building blocks and organize them into 3D structures known as architectures. I predict that artificial materials—substances created at the nanometer level with useful properties—will eventually replace conventional materials not only in science and technology, but in many areas of everyday life.
Recently, advances in 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing have made it possible to organize micro- and nano-sized building blocks of matter into complex structures with great precision. Now we can create new materials from components ranging in size from just over 100 atoms to a few millimeters.
This means that scientists can separate properties that have historically been related to each other. For example, durable materials are usually heavy, while insulating materials such as tableware are often brittle. But when ceramics and glass are built by replacing solid blocks of material with a structure of the same size made up of small struts, they can deform and rebound like a sponge.
And that’s not all: architectural materials can evolve in space and time in response to a preprogrammed trigger. They can take many forms to respond or adapt to a new environment or stimulus. They can be made to release objects by loosening their grip when heated, or break them in certain places when stressed.
This essay is part of the MIT Technology Review’s 2022 Innovators Under 35 package, which recognizes the most promising young people working in technology today. See the full list here or check out the category winners below.