LIVING IN A MATERIAL WORLD
LIVING IN A MATERIAL WORLD
Want to know what a yellow quantum dot looks like? Vermilion thermochromic paper? Ferrite magnets? Dragon skin? Welcome to the Materials Library, hidden away inside the Institute of Making.
Words Megan Welford Images Adam Lawrence
As founder of the Institute of Making and Materials Library at UCL, Dr Zoe Laughlin is used to being sent strange packages in the post. But even she was a bit shocked at a conference in Texas when she was cornered by a GI-type man in a too-small suit and a suitcase handcuffed to his wrist.
“He said: ‘I know you’re into materials, come with me’,” explains Laughlin. “He took me to a sports hall and opened the case, which had these black orbs inside. He made me throw one and it made a crater in the wall. I was intrigued to say the least!”
The orbs made it into the Library – “You can make anything there – except weapons,” says Laughlin – and now live in the ‘drawer of balls’. “It was silicon nitrate – used as ball bearings in the oil industry because it can withstand any pressure. They now live alongside a nice globule of natural rubber, which smells of wood smoke. It’s ancient, but it’s found a modern use in things such as jet tyres because it can absorb impact and doesn’t react to friction. It enables the entire modern world.”
This looking back to look forward is a feature of the Materials Library, part of UCL’s Institute of Making. There you will find engineers, medics, artists, designers and social scientists “boiling things up together” to explore projects as diverse as self-healing roads, medical leggings and fungus you can engineer.
Its weird and wonderful collection spilled over from the desks of Laughlin, who has an MA from Central Saint Martin’s, and her colleagues: her PhD in Materials supervisor Professor Mark Miodownik, an engineer and materials scientist, and Martin Conreen, Senior Lecturer in Design. “We all love materials,” explains Miodownik, “but from different angles. So, between us we have the whole picture.”
Civilisations through the ages have been named after materials, points out Miodownik. “Bronze, iron… Our history is the history of materials and what they have made possible. It’s hard to know what will define our age; it could be plastic, silicon or the implants such as the biomaterials used in hip replacements. We do two million hip replacements a year – those people would all have been hobbling about before. That’s huge.”
The thing about materials, he says, is that they are inherently interdisciplinary. Glass, as Laughlin points out, was invented by craftspeople, but is crucial to chemistry. Hairdressers have scissors, surgeons have scalpels. “Scientists used to work closely with artists,” says Miodownik. “It’s only in the 20th century that arts and sciences split. Now they don’t speak the same language but materials can be a tool of translation.
“Materials have magnetic and electronic properties but they also have sensual and aesthetic properties that are equally important. Something used in biochemistry or medicine could also have uses in architecture. We don’t want a world where only scientists decide what materials are developed.”
Dr Sarah Wilkes, a social scientist and research fellow at the Institute of Making, agrees. “I was involved in a project called Light.Touch.Matters that brought together material scientists and product designers interested in composite materials that light up when you touch them. They had a different language around materials. The designers would say they wanted something ‘flexible and transparent’, which the materials scientists would call ‘elastic modulus’. But seeing and touching the materials helped them work together.”
For Laughlin, the Materials Library is this democratic, open space. “We have tin rod, for example, that is actually soft, with microcrystals inside sliding over each other as it moves,” she says. “Touching and bending it reveals something that is usually inside science. If you lead with an experience, that surprises and delights, then you make science accessible.”
Wilkes was involved in another project, Hands of X, that brought together social scientists, engineers and designers around prosthetic limbs. “Engineers do great work on functionality but there are other more psychosocial aspects that affect the wearer’s experience,” she explains. “Obviously there’s a need for affordable prosthetics and the NHS offers silicone rubber and carbon fibres. The material scientists assume the wearers want prosthetics that are as discreet and lifelike as possible, but if you ask wearers some say they like bright colours or materials that feel natural, like leather and wood. How a material feels can have as much impact on psychological acceptance as how it looks, so you need to consider things like roughness and surface texture, for example. Glasses used to be purely medical until fashion designers got involved, and prosthetics could be the same.”
“We started one project 10 years ago,” says Miodownik, “when some artists were in the library licking the samples. Lead was one of them. We were saying, ‘Please don’t do that.’ But they pointed out the different tastes of materials, and we started looking into it by building a multidisciplinary team. We worked with chefs on taste sensations in restaurants and we’re now working with UCL medics to investigate how taste changes with age.”
Another material is currently going through tests for the construction industry. “Self-healing concrete is a bio-co-operative material, similar to that found in the Coliseum in Rome,” says Laughlin. “You inject bacteria into the concrete, which wakes up when it comes into contact with moisture and secretes calcium carbonate, thereby sealing up any cracks in the concrete. Similar bacteria was in the ash of Vesuvius, which is how it ended up in the Coliseum.”
Because materials are used to build things for people, says Miodownik, projects around them are complicated. “We are looking at self-healing roads, which local authorities would like but might also have unintended consequences. So we’re working not just with civil engineers and material scientists but also economists and environmentalists to understand the impact of self-repairing infrastructure. Another thing we are working on is plastic recycling, and that involves experts in behaviour change, biochemical engineering, chemical engineering and industry – because we don’t need a ‘perfect’, academic solution, we need a real-world solution.”
The Institute of Making team is also exploring new 3D-printed materials that could be used as leggings to replace splints and walking aids. “Could you 3D print a structure that would fit you exactly, be rigid in some parts and soft in others?” asks Laughlin. “It would need to respond to movement and soften and relax to order. With 3D printing, we can make things that don’t exist yet.” “Think of the market!” says Miodownik. “It could be bigger than phones. People like to talk and text, but they like to move more.”
A look at the Materials Library shows us the world we’ve built, but it also reveals possible future worlds. “As you wander round the library,” says Miodownik, “it becomes clear that what we built wasn’t inevitable. And that means the future’s not set – there are many, tangibly different, possible futures.”
Find out more about the Institute of Making here.