I had the pleasure of spending one night last week in the basement of London’s Soho House, learning about an array of amazing materials courtesy of Dr Zoe Laughlin of the Institute of Making and science collective Super/Collider.
Laughlin, an artist who “became less interested in making stuff and more interested in the stuff itself”, recently conducted a fascinating project in which she tried to figure out what materials taste like – using both human perception and scientific fact to map out tastes. From this information, she developed a menu which used different types of cutlery to enhance the meals contained on it. For example, if a customer ordered curry but wanted it to be a little less spicy, she would pair the meal with a copper spoon to add some bitterness. Laughlin is currently developing the cutlery commercially, hoping to launch it at retail level in the not-so-distant future.
The first material passed around the group was Silly Putty, a viscous elastic which is both a liquid and a solid at once. Its state responds to the energy you give it – so that if you hit it hard, it acts as a solid whereas if you press into it slowly it will respond more as a liquid. Interestingly, Laughlin explained that tomato ketchup behaves in the opposite manner, and that to best eject liquid from a bottle of ketchup you should apply soft consistent taps.
Laughlin passed around a variety of tuning forks, made of materials ranging from copper and brass to wood and plastic, to demonstrate the different amplification qualities of each one.
The lightest material in the world, made by NASA to catch space dust, is silicon aerogel. It’s too light to weigh, and has a slightly spongy, foamy exterior which Laughlin likens to a meringue. Aerogel is 99.8% air. Next up is the heaviest material possible (without it becoming radioactive): tungsten. This metal is used as a component in light bulbs, in very small quantities.
This is a ceramic which is the second hardest material in the world, second only to diamond. It’s currently used within the oil industry, and as the tip on high-grade tools.
This material is so new it hasn’t been used structurally yet; it is, in Laughlin’s words, “straight out of a research lab in Germany”. Enzymes and bacteria are trapped between the concrete particles which, when wet, will breed and deposit limestone. This limestone will mix with other impregnated materials to seal up hairline cracks and flaws. Trials so far suggest that this semi-organic concrete will heal within a week.
Laughlin has also created her take on ‘transparent concrete’, a material which caused excitement when first announced. Her version uses a grid of optical fibres rather than a random pattern, so that resolution captured on one side of a sample cube travels through to the other side. This can be seen in the photo here, which shows the shape of a finger blocking out light on the other side.
Rapid prototyping, or additive technology
This now-popular technique for making impossible objects” uses 3D printing to build up layers of a material (anything from gold and plastic to sand) , allowing designers to create fantastical 3D forms which it wouldn’t be possible to manufacture in any other way. Laughlin explained that Peugeot now has an entire factory of 3D printing machines, which can roll out spare parts more cost- and time-effectively than a traditional, tooled-up production line. Cobblers now also make bespoke shoes for footballers using this method, while The Shard, an architectural project underway in London Bridge, is using a large-scale interpretation of rapid prototyping – the first time the process has been used at such a level.
Scientists at Imperial College London are currently human-trialling a new body implant called a bioglass scaffold. This implant is impregnated with stem cells and proteins so that the body’s own cells can build on to the scaffold and eventually replace it, so that in a few years there is no artificial implant left. Effectively, this will be a new era of bespoke implants.
This is a magnetic fluid made up of tiny particles of iron filings suspended in a liquid to change its viscosity. It’s currently used in Bose speakers, while Mercedes and Bentley use it for suspension.
These curious little items are exactly what they sound like: they are made of a material which has the same refractive index as water, meaning that they are completely transparent except for their edges – which can be made out if you look closely. They’re slightly soft to the touch, like a contact lens.
A nickle-titanium alloy which returns to its memory shape when heat is applied.