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4th June 2019

3 key trends driving growth in the materials science industry

Materials science is at the forefront of significant challenges affecting the global economy. As businesses accelerate towards a low emission, automated future; materials are having to keep pace, and adapt.

Thanks to a spate of recent advancements in materials science, vehicles and planes have become lighter; robots are capable of learning and working in testing conditions, and green technologies are becoming ever more ubiquitous. Here’s a look at these trends and at how materials science is playing a crucial role in facilitating their trajectory.


Lighter, lighter still.

As energy efficiency and environmental protection climb further up the list of priorities, so do light materials and advanced materials technologies. It is projected that a EUR 300 billion market will be created for high strength steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber over the next two decades.

Lightweighting is a term often used in the automotive and aviation industries. It refers to the process of building cars, trucks, and planes that are less heavy in order to achieve better fuel efficiency and handling.

Reducing the mass of a vehicle can have huge environmental benefits, too. One figure suggests that reducing an automobile’s weight by just 50g reduces CO2 emissions by up to 5g every kilometre. All the while increasing fuel economy by up to 2%.

Lightweighting in the automotive industry will have ramped up significantly by 2030, with one report suggesting that the market share of lightweight automobiles will grow from 30% to 70% of the industry.

Much of this growth is due to the increasing dominance of electric vehicles, which will make up 5% of the global light-vehicle market by the end of 2020 Electric vehicles rely on lightweight materials to achieve maximum range and to offset the weight of heavy electrical components, such as lithium-ion battery cells.

Conventionally, lightweight automobiles utilise a significant amount of high strength steel. More and more, however, manufacturers are turning to even lighter materials; such as aluminum, magnesium, titanium, carbon fiber and even high-strength plastics.

This is unsurprising considering the weight reductions possible with lightweight alloys and composites. Magnesium, for example, is 75% lighter than steel and offers greater malleability, meaning it can be formed into intricate components more effectively.

The aviation industry is also pursuing greener practices by shedding excess weight. Airbus utilise 70% lightweight materials in their most recent aircrafts and reported a record-breaking 800 aircraft deliveries in 2018.

While the environmental benefits of using lightweight materials are clear, it is crucial that introducing these does not come at the cost of safety, reliability or performance. For this reason, manufacturers are turning to surface treatments which make lightweight materials more durable, and resistant enough to replace heavier parts.

Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation, for example, can be used to coat aluminium brake discs. This enhances the aluminum with properties such as high wear resistance, high corrosion resistance, relatively low stiffness, and high thermal resistance.


Robots, everywhere.

The industrial robotics industry is expected to grow 175% over the next nine years. By 2025, it’s expected that the demand for electronics manufacturing robots will match the automotive industry. The long-term cost advantages that come with robotics is generating interest in a wide range of industries.

Innovations in key technologies are giving robots human-like qualities. 3D embedded vision; multispectral and hyperspectral imaging; as well as in AI and deep learning; are making robots more autonomous and better able to handle complex tasks.  

In the future, robots will be able to combine machine vision with machine learning to program themselves through trial and error. On the hardware side of things, key developments in materials are also improving the capabilities of robots in industrial settings.

Materials science experts seek to improve robots motors by making them more nimble, and longer lasting. ‘Variable Friction’ robot fingers, for example, work by combining a surface made of soft urethane (high-surface friction), with a surface made of hard 3D-printed plastic (low-surface friction) to mimic the dexterity of human fingers.

Experts also look to improve robot materials by making them stronger, more resistant to repetitive high-load and stress levels, and reliable; all fundamental to the function of an industrial robot.

Degradation due to excessive wear, as well as exposure to variable conditions such as high temperatures, acidic manufacturing environments and hydrostatic pressure, is a key challenge the industry faces and one that will be met with greater innovation over the coming decades.

Keronite is focusing on developing surface treatment technologies which will help ensure moving components in robots are resistant to wear, corrosion, heat and other extreme conditions; giving early adopting businesses greater assurance that their investment in robotics automation will prove fruitful.


Everything’s going green

The need for greener technologies is universally recognised. A recent report published by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change suggests that the UK could almost eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, reaching this carbon-free haven requires a fundamental rethink about the materials used in renewable power generation.

The solar energy market has grown year on year, roughly by 30% in 2017. Over the next 5 years, businesses will increasingly turn towards decentralised energy systems such as micro-grids, this is partly due to the cost of solar energy becoming more competitive.

For businesses to make the switch, the return on investment on renewable technologies needs to improve beyond current levels. This entails making sure technologies are built to endure tough conditions and last, all while offering performance in the long term. Solar grids, which are often exposed to variable weather conditions, and are packed full of sensitive technologies, will need to be able to withstand extreme conditions; such as temperature changes, corrosion, and electric shocks.

Protective coatings for renewable energy grids; such as solar, wind and hydro farms, need to be sustainably sourced and not bring harm to the environment, both in their production or disposal. Regulations like RoHS and REACH are prohibiting the use of some protective coatings, for their use of toxic chemicals like chrome.

By avoiding restricted materials, Keronites PEO solution ticks all the regulatory boxes and ensures manufacturers are up to speed with industries accelerated lurch towards a greener future.


Preparing our materials for the future

Big changes are afoot, and materials will have to keep up. Making the most out of materials by decreasing weight and improving durability; as well as by ensuring longevity and recyclability, is now more crucial than ever. As the demands of industry change, materials innovation takes a pivotal role. Now, more than ever, materials will need to adapt to the challenges presented by a world in transition.