Living in a Materials World: How Material Scientists Are Forging a Sustainable Future

By Kelley Northam

From a smartphone in someone’s pocket to a pacemaker in someone’s chest, critical raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and heavy metals are essential for powering the technology we rely on today. However, despite the rising global demand, socioeconomic, geopolitical, and supply chain barriers are preventing many people from getting the critical raw materials they need when they need them. And as alarming climate change research continues to emerge, the world is looking for new methods to sustainably and ethically source and create safer products for consumers and the environment.

To address these barriers, material scientists around the globe are forging sustainable, innovative paths forward. They’re developing better ways to process and refine critical materials and feed the innovation of novel materials and new products for a better future.

To support scientists in their materials transformation quest, the Biden-Harris administration designated 31 U.S. Tech Hubs in October 2023 as part of the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. These Tech Hubs are regions located across 32 states and Puerto Rico that have the capacity, infrastructure, and desire to host businesses that manufacture, commercialize, and deploy new technology.

With the help of funding opportunities, these Hubs can support domestic manufacturing by catalyzing growth in industries such as biotechnology, semiconductor manufacturing, and clean energy advancement. This will help intentionally innovate new methods for sourcing and using critical raw materials.

One recent innovation was spearheaded by Paul Canefield, a physicist from Ames Laboratory in Iowa, who developed a safer, greener, and more accurate method for characterizing new materials. Growing known and unknown compounds, referred to as solution growth, requires crucibles, which are heat-resistant ceramic containers in which the elements of the desired compound are combined. Traditionally, silica wool is used in crucibles as a filter, but it can lead to leakage, chemical contamination, and unwanted growths. It can also never be analyzed or reused.

To overcome these problems, he designed a strainer that separates crystal materials from their chemical solutions, resulting in a less wasteful and more economical technique for growing compounds. This technique is more efficient, more economical, and greener, advancing the materials discovery field and circular recycling.

Sustainable materials breakthroughs are also happening worldwide. At the University of Sydney, Australia, Professor Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh and Dr. Junma Tang developed a method to help green chemical engineering, publishing their findings in Nature Nanotechnology. Typically, producing chemicals requires high amounts of energy and heat—up to 1,000°C, to melt solid metals. These scientists determined that liquid metals can also produce chemicals with less heat and energy, melting at only 30°C—a temperature that a gas cooktop could produce.

Reducing the energy required to produce chemicals is a huge step in greening the chemical manufacturing industry, which currently accounts for approximately 10%-15% of overall greenhouse gas emissions. This new technique will help reduce energy and emissions while still supplying high-energy fuels, such as propylene, that are critical to many industries.

These are just a few of the many examples of how agencies, engineers, and researchers alike are paving new, suitable ways forward. Now’s the time—browse our wide selection of testing and safety products to start innovating today to create the products of tomorrow.

Kelley Northam is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.

Living in a Materials World How Materials Scientists Are Forging a Sustainable Future

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