ETech 09: New Materials

Andrew Dent from Material ConneXion, Inc. A talk from Tuesday afternoon at ETech 09. He was a great speaker: authorative, dapper in a three piece suit, sounding slightly and entertainingly exasperated.

The company finds materials for clients. They have a library of over 4,500 materials in a few locations round the world.

What do we have a lot of? Solar energy, agriculture, certain chemical elements, carbon dioxide, waste.

What are we running out of? Oil, various elements (copper, gold, etc), clean air and water.

How can new materials and processes redress this balance between abundance and constraints?

Most sustainable design ideas are about reducing stuff. “Being less bad is not being good” — William McDonough. You can quickly reduce, say, packaging but there comes a point where you can’t reduce any further. If you can design and manufacture the right way you can reduce the idea of waste.

Biological nutrients — things are grown, used, then put back into the ground. Technical nutrients — the products need to be taken apart and the materials used again.

Simplification of materials.

eg, reducing use of paint. Plastics can have “Class A” surfaces that don’t require painting, eg Smart cars.

If you plasma treat cotton you can make it waterproof. Plasma treating materials can change their properties without adding more materials.

New molding techniques. eg, Crocs shoes, although unattractive, are an example of a product made from a single material, creating less waste. Different densities in one mold will soon be possible.


They come from trees and plants, eg castor plants. They’re not compostable and can be recycled. There’s a way of stressing corn to produce plastics. It does come from a food source, but we can also sequester carbon dioxide to make plastics from it. We’ve had the technology to do all this for some time but no one wanted to; we just used oil-based plastics.

Natural material processing

Chicken feathers used for printed circuit boards. Carrots used to make fishing rods (an improvement over carbon fibre). Grass used to strengthen plastics.

Better recycling

Ikea don’t use recycled plastics because they can’t guarantee the quality. We can now control what’s going into plastics to be more reliable.

Carpet manufacturers realised that most of their value is in the materials — the manufacturing process is cheap. So Shaw Carpets are looking at starting [or already have started?] to lease carpets so they can take them back and recycle the materials. Once we have a critical mass of carpet in the world there should be no need to use more materials.


Colour through structure. Pigments that colour everything now start to degrade over time and use. And some pigments are nasty materials.

The morpha butterfly appears to have blue wings but the wings aren’t blue. [I missed how this works!] You can change the colour of materials through their structure.

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