Engineers have also been envisioning concrete, asphalt, and metal that can heal themselves. (Imagine a city with no more potholes!) The rub, of course, lies in making them cheap enough to actually use, which is why the first applications for self-healing materials are most likely to be in space or in remote areas on Earth.
Thermoelectric Materials — Heat Scavengers
Last year, California-based Alphabet Energy introduced a thermoelectric generator that plugs right into the exhaust pipe of ordinary generator, turning waste heat back into useful electricity. Alphabet Energy's generator uses a relatively cheap and naturally occurring thermoelectric material called tetrahedrite. Alphabet Energy says tetrahedrite can reach 5 to 10 percent efficiency.
Back in the lab, scientists have also been tinkering with another promising and possibly even more efficient thermoelectric material called skutterudite, which is a type of mineral that contains cobalt. Thermoelectric materials have already had niche applications—like on spacecraft—but skutterudite could get cheap and efficient enough to be wrapped around theexhaust pipes of cars or fridges or any other power-hogging machine you can think of.
Perovskites — Cheap Solar Cells
Perovskites were first discovered over a century ago, but scientists are only just realizing its potential. In 2009, solar cells made from perovskites had a solar energy conversion efficiency of a measly 3.8 percent. In 2014, the number had leapt to 19.3 percent. That may not seem like much compared to traditional crystalline silicon cells with efficiencies hovering around 20 percent, but there's two other crucial points to consider: 1) perovskites have made such leaps and bounds in efficiency in just a few years that scientist think it can get even better and 2) perovskites are much, much cheaper.
Perovskites are a class of materials defined by a particular crystalline structure. They can contain any number of elements, usually lead and tin for perovskites used in solar cells. These raw materials are cheap compared to crystalline silicon, and they can be sprayed onto glass rather than meticulously assembled in clean rooms. Oxford Photovoltaics is one of the leading companies trying to commercialize perovskites, which as wonderful as they have been in the lab, still do need to hold up in the real world.
Aerogels — Superlight and Strong
Aerogels do have one fatal flaw though: brittleness, especially when made from silica. But NASA scientists have been experimenting with flexible aerogels made of polymers to use insulators for spacecraft burning through the atmosphere. Mixing other compounds into even silica-based aerogels could make them more flexible. Add that to aerogel's lightness, strength, and insulating qualities, and that's one incredible material. [New Scientist, Gizmodo]
Metamaterials — Light Manipulators
If you've heard of metamaterials, you likely heard about it in a sentence that also mentioned "Harry Potter" and "invisibility cloak." And indeed, metamaterials, whose nanostructures are design to scatter light in specific ways, could possibly one day be used to render objects invisible—though it still probably wouldn't be as magical as Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.
What's more interesting about metamaterials is that they don't just redirect visible light. Depending on how and what a particular metamaterial is made of, it can also scatter microwaves, radiowaves, or the little-known T-rays, which are between microwaves and infrared light on the electromagnetic spectrum. Any piece of electromagnetic spectrum could be manipulated by metamaterials.
That could be, for example, new T-ray scanners in medicine or security or a compact radio antennae made of metamaterials whose properties change on the fly. Metamaterials are at the promising but frustrating cusp where the theoretical possibilities are endless, but commercialization is still a long, hard road. [Nature, Discover Magazine]
Stanene — 100 percent efficient conductor
Stanene was first theorized in 2013 by Stanford professor Shoucheng Zhang, whose lab specializes in, along other things, predicting the electronic properties of materials like stanene. According to their models, stanene is a topological insulator, which means its edges are a conductor and its inside is an insulator. (Think of a chocolate-covered ice cream bar. Chocolate conductor, ice cream insulator.)
This means stanene could conduct electricity with zero resistance even, crucially, at room temperature. Stanene's properties have yet to been tested experimentally—making a single-atom sheet tin is no easy task—but several of Zhang's predictions about other topological insulators have proven correct.
If the predictions about stanene bear out, it could revolutionize the microchips inside all your devices. Namely, the chips could get a lot more powerful. Silicon chips are limited by the heat created by electrons zipping around—work 'em too fast and they'll simply get too hot. Stanene, which conducts electricity 100 percent efficiency, would have no such problem.
source: gizmodo.com Sarah Zhang