The New Age of Exploration

Super Materials

Combine shrimp shell and silk proteins and a miraculous new substance is born. “Shrilk” was invented by researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard, who layered the two components in a way that mimicked structures found in shells and insect cuticles. Shrilk is inexpensive to manufacture but has invaluable virtues: It’s tough, flexible, and biodegradable. In the future it may be used to make everything from wound dressings to trash bags to disposable diapers. And it might make many landfill-choking plastics obsolete.

From the beginning of human history innovators have experimented with all kinds of elements, from the ordinary to the invisible, to try to come up with new, improved materials. The invention of plastic in 1907 inaugurated the era of synthetic materials that are stirred up in laboratories, greatly expanding the possibilities for creating an endless variety of useful products. Sometimes, though, scientists concoct materials that have no clear use at first. That’s the case with the complex, record-holding kinds of carbon highlighted at right.

Other new materials may seem trivial in our high-tech world but will undoubtedly bring joy to convenience-seeking consumers. For example, a team from MIT has come up with a patent-protected, food-based formula called LiquiGlide, a slippery coating for the inside of containers that will make thick liquids like ketchup and mayonnaise glide right out. “It’s like a permanent oil slick on the plastic,” says team member Dave Smith. Shoppers can anticipate LiquiGlide-lined condiment bottles in a year or so. —A. R. Williams

Thinnest and Strongest

A human hair is almost a million times thicker than a layer of graphene. The material is made of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. In theory, a string of graphene with a diameter of just one-tenth of a square millimeter—the size of a very sharp pencil point—could hold up a thousand-pound piano. To take advantage of that incredible strength, though, scientists will have to figure out a way to embed this atomic-scale element in other materials.

Imagine a single layer of graphene enlarged to a quarter of an inch (the thickness of National Geographic magazine). At that scale, a strand of hair would be nearly four miles wide.

World’s Hardest

Scientists crushed a naturally occurring kind of carbon called buckminsterfullerene (the molecules look like soccer balls) to create a material strong enough to dent diamonds. As yet unnamed, it may find use in industrial manufacturing and deep-well drilling.

Buckminsterfullerene is named for the patent holder of a similarly shaped architectural dome.

Lightest and Blackest

Aerographite is a form of carbon with a spongelike structure. It is water-repellent, highly resilient, and extremely light. It also conducts electricity. Its inventors believe it could be used in electric-car batteries—a lighter load cuts operating costs. They’ve yet to determine how to profit from its ability to absorb almost all light, which makes it blacker than coal.

World’s Hardest
Lightest and Blackest
5W infographics; Alexander Stegmaier, NGM Staff
Sources: Carnegie Institution for Science; Kiel University; Hamburg University of Technology; National Graphene Institute, University of Manchester