During our fellowship we got the chance to experience the work of material scientists that develop the materials of the future. It intrigued us so much that we decided to build the online platform “Future of Materials” which gives you a unique insight into the materials that are likely to shape our future.

Our previous blog post “Materiality Lab” gave insights into the approach we took to explore different ways of presenting information about materials. After taking a closer look at material archives and collections of existing materials, we wanted to learn more about the development of future materials. We visited the lab of the Complex Materials group at ETH Zurich where we experienced the fascinating world of novel materials currently developed by researchers of the Material Science Department. The following video gives an impression of a unique material example we saw there.

What’s this?

What you just encountered in the video is a material called Soft Magnetic Carpet under the microscope, developed by material scientist Ahmet Demirörs. It consists of tiny hairs that can be individually controlled through magnetic forces. This structure can take up loads and transport solid objects or liquids through their movements. The Soft Magnetic Carpet is comparable to the cilia of our bronchia.

The Complex Materials Group of Prof. Dr. André R. Studart at ETH Zurich puts their research focus on materials that behave in novel ways. These materials combine unusual characteristics and are inspired by nature, in terms of their structure, function or composition. Natural materials like sea shells or bones often show interesting properties. Material scientists can attempt to imitate these natural properties to achieve strength or they can adapt the structures of the original material and tweak it to better fit environmental or usage-based needs. What fascinated us, was to understand that many of these future materials developed in research groups like the Complex Material Group are no longer inert matter. Instead, they are responsive and evolving systems that can transform to adapt to their environment.

Soft Magnetic Carpet moving a sphere.
– Ahmet Demirörs, Complex Materials Group, ETHZ –

Current research, different perspectives

Material science research is a complex and therefore not fast-paced process. It usually takes a long time until it reaches the world outside of the science community. For us as designers, this glimpse into the future of materials was mind-blowing from the first minute onwards. It instantly made us think about how the world could potentially look like if these materials would be applied more widely.

We also felt that intermediate research results are for the most part not easily accessible and practitioners from creative communities would therefore not be aware of them. Scientific articles may be publicly available, but they only capture a very specific angle about the research. Moreover, they are written in a highly specialized language. Many aspects of the materials we saw at the lab were not included in the published paper, since they may not be directly relevant for scientific communities. For example, unaddressed questions that we find relevant as designers are:

  • How does the material feel when touched?
  • How do the failed experiments look?
  • How does it smell?
  • What do people associate with a material when they see it?

It became clear to us that we wanted to bring together experts from scientific and creative backgrounds to jointly think about potential ways of material development including scientific, cultural, and societal perspectives.

ETH Library Lab "Future of Materials"
How does it smell? Cellulose grown by bacteria.
– material sample by Julie Laurent & Anton Kan, Complex Materials Group ETHZ –

Future of Materials

In a first step and triggered by these observations, we developed a format to show new materials to curious people outside the scientific community. Our project is called “Future of Materials”- a curated, web-based platform for discovering current material science research. Specifically, designers and artists – professionals who work with materials in experimental and speculative ways – could benefit a lot from knowing more about the current state-of-the art research on novel materials. Through the fellowship project and our engagement with the material science community we have come to believe that broadening the perspectives on new materials has the potential to accelerate work streams of both scientists and creatives.

Enter the Future of materials (screenshot).

Working on a prototype.

Connecting Material Scientists and Creators

As we envision it, Future of Materials is a creative way to participate in the research process. Designers can discover materials currently in development at different labs in an interactive and engaging way. The platform provides general information about new materials such as their properties or composition. In addition, visitors can also explore a material’s unique behaviours through interactive visualizations or gather access additional resources of the researchers. The visitors are also invited to share their thoughts about different aspects of the material. In addition to the curated web collection Future of Materials, we intend to offer masterclasses and workshops where scientists and creatives can directly imagine and discuss the potential of the materials by co-developing scenarios together as well as engaging in rapid prototype building.

The Future of Materials platform offers researchers the opportunity to open up direct communication channels to the public and make their work more participatory. Demands or even concerns of the public could be discussed early and contribute towards identifying relevant research questions.

Interactive explanation of the Soft Magnetic Carpet in development.

We believe that artists and designers can contribute with their specific ability to work fast on a smaller scale, before the research is filtered through applied science and industrial applications. That is why we would like to strengthen more interdisciplinary and condensed initiatives to also grow the number of ideas from which scientists can draw.

What’s next?

Did you get curious about future materials and do you want to learn more? From November 10-14, 2021, we exhibit Future of Materials at the REFRESH festival in Zurich – an event about the future of Design and Arts. We will present our platform there. Moreover, if you want to hit the ground running, make sure to apply for our Masterclass Materializer to imagine the potential use of future materials (link below).

REFRESH #4

Exhibition Future of Materials: https://refresh.zhdk.ch/refresh-4/exhibition/future-of-materials/

Masterclass Materializer: https://refresh.zhdk.ch/refresh-4/masterclasses/nadya-suvorova-mario-von-rickenbach/
(sold out)

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank Stéphanie Hegelbach (master student Architecture, ETH Zurich) for her support in writing this blog post.

Authors

Nadya Suvorova

Interactive Media Artist and Designer

Mario von Rickenbach

Game Designer and Artist

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