The recently concluded K 2007 conference in Düsseldorf, Germany, featured a variety of recent advances in materials science that will change your life. No hyperbole there--just a safe prediction.
I didn't make it to the show, but I've been following the announcements on the Web site of Design News, a trade publication for mechanical engineers. The K Fair is all about plastics...but in truth, the line between plastic and metal is getting pretty blurry these days.
Indeed, companies such as DuPont are now talking about plastics climbing "the metals replacement curve." MetaFuse technology, co-developed by DuPont, Morph Technologies, Integran, and PowerMetal Technologies, combines "nanocrystalline" metals with engineering polymers to create objects with exceptionally high stiffness-to-weight ratios.
Carbon nanotubes promise to replace metal entirely in future automobiles, mobile electronics, and other products. At K 2007, companies such as Bayer and RTP showed carbon nanotube-based composite plastics. Earlier in October, Bayer announced it's building a second production facility for carbon nanotubes. The new facility's capacity is only 30 metric tons per year; Bayer and all of today's suppliers together can barely handle the demand for experimentation and prototyping, but Bayer says its "medium term" plan is to build another facility with the capacity to produce 3,000 tons per year. That's starting to become significant, I think.
Carbon-fiber composites are already strong enough to replace aluminum and steel in certain circumstances, chiefly where cost is secondary to weight or style, as in Toyota's 1/X concept, a carbon-fiber car weighing just 926 pounds, or the 2008 BMW M3--I'm planning to buy one of these next year myself.
But carbon nanotubes are so much stronger than carbon (graphite) fibers that they will likely enable entirely new design philosophies, in the same way that steel revolutionized shipbuilding, and aluminum made commercial aviation practical. We define prehistoric times in terms of materials science--the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age--and we're on the cusp of a new age based on practical nanotechnology.