10 amazing materials that could transform our tech

Designers will soon have a whole new set of materials to play with

If you compare today's tablets to the PCs of ten years ago, it's clear that technology has evolved at an astonishing rate - but while our gadgets are smaller, more powerful and considerably more portable than the devices we used a decade ago they're still made from essentially the same materials.

That's about to change. Hardware designers will soon have a whole new set of toys to play with, and those toys will transform the technology that surrounds us. Here are ten materials that could have a huge impact.

1. Liquidmetal

Smartphone firms including Apple are very keen to use Liquidmetal, and you can see why: it's twice as strong as titanium, exceptionally scratch- and wear-resistant and can be moulded into incredibly intricate shapes.

This week's Apple rumours suggest it's being considered for the iWatch case and future iPads, but for now Apple's Liquidmetal adventures haven't extended beyond the SIM card ejector tool for the iPhone 3GS.

2. Graphene

Graphene is getting lots of people very excited: according to Nobel laureate Andre Geim, "it's the thinnest possible material you can imagine... it's also the strongest material ever measured; it's the stiffest material we know; it's the most stretchable crystal."

Graphene transistors could lead to dramatically faster computers and better batteries, and its spin-off GraphExeter is a transparent, lightweight and flexible material that could turn our clothes into computing devices.


Graphene: the strongest, stiffest, stretchiest material the world has ever seen

3. Willow Glass

We're all familiar with Corning's Gorilla Glass, the super-tough glass used in smartphone screens. Willow Glass is its successor, and its incredible thinness - it's roughly the same thickness as a standard sheet of copy paper - and flexibility - it can be bent into curved shapes - mean that the touch-screen devices of the future needn't be thick or flat.

It can be produced in much the same way newsprint is made, and according to Corning "there's no known limit on how thin the glass can go."

4. Flexible OLED

Fancy a flexible smartphone or a curved TV for gaming? LG and Samsung are working on it: both firms are experimenting with flexible OLED displays, which are manufactured using a process that's rather like inkjet printing and which creates bendable, rollable screens.

Samsung showed off a flexible phone at CES, and we're expecting LG's curved TVs to go on sale later this year.

LG curved TV

LG's curved OLED TVs are on sale in Korea

5. Starlite

Starlite is a plastic that's able to withstand incredible amounts of heat - nuclear explosion levels of heat - and can be moulded into any form, and while we've know about it for two decades it's never been used in any commercial product.

That's because creator Maurice Ward, a hairdresser from Yorkshire, was so paranoid about somebody stealing his invention that he refused to licence it. Ward died in 2011, and it's unclear what happened to his formula: some say that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, while others say it's real and that Ward's family still have it.

If they do, they're sitting on a goldmine: as James Rivington explains, "the applications for it are near infinite" - but "no scientific mind has ever been able to work out how it works".

3D printer

Starlite plus 3D printing could be amazing - assuming Starlite isn't an elaborate hoax

6. Nanocellulose

You already know about cellulose, the material that makes tree bark and plant stems, but you might not know that if you mess around with its chemical structure you can create one of the strongest materials known to man.

It's light, conducts electricity, and if you mix it with graphite you can use it to make bendable batteries. Not only that, but you can use it to make body armour, lighter and more efficient vehicles and flexible phones - and because it's essentially wood pulp it's recyclable too.


Nanocellulose is incredibly strong and applications range from batteries to body armour

7. Metal Foam

As the name suggests, metal foam is metal with a lot of holes it in: it's a metallic structure containing huge numbers of gas-filled pores. It's very strong, but as more than three quarters of it is empty space it's also exceptionally light.

That makes it particularly well suited for applications including prosthetic bones and joints, construction, soundproofing and heat insulation. It's particularly interesting to car manufacturers: it's a very effective shock absorber that adds strength without also adding weight.

Metal Foam

Metal foam: the bubbles make it light and the metal makes it strong [Credit: SecretDisc on Wikipedia]

8. Bioplastics

Bioplastics have been around for a while - NEC was banging on about them six years ago - but they haven't become mainstream yet.

That's because despite their green credentials - while normal plastics generally come from fossil fuels and don't biodegreate, bioplastics are made from natural sources such as vegetable oils and cellulose and/or don't clog up landfills forever - they've been pricey to produce.

That's slowly changing, and according to trade organisation European Bioplastics the market for bioplastics is growing more than 20% per year.


NEC's 2007 N701iECO was partly made from corn, but other firms have yet to embrace the material

9. Nanodots and perovskite

One of the big problems with solar power is that solar panels are horribly inefficient: today, 20% efficiency is considered pretty good. Researchers at Stanford University believe that gold "nanodots" could lead to much thinner, much more efficient solar panels.

In the meantime, dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSCs) offer similar efficiencies to current solar panels but at much lower costs, driving down the per-watt cost of solar electricity. DSSCs use perovskite, an abundant mineral that you'll also find in piezoelectric components and fuel cells.


Stanford University scientists have created the thinnest, most efficient light absorber ever made [Credit: Stanford University]

10. E-skin

Engineers at UC Berkeley have created what they call e-skin, a plastic film containing a transistor, organic LED and pressure sensor in each pixel.

It's flexible and can be laminated onto almost anything, with possible applications including touch-sensitive controls in cars, wallpapers that work as touch screens or robots with a very delicate sense of touch.

According to study co-lead author Chuan Wang, "I could also imagine an e-skin bandage applied to an arm as a health monitor that continuously checks blood pressure and pulse rates."



Former lion tamer, Girls Aloud backing dancer and habitual liar Gary Marshall (Twitter, Google+) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to .net, MacFormat, Tap! and Official Windows Magazine as well as co-writing stacks of how-to tech books. "My job is to cut through the crap," he says. "And there's a lot of crap."