When looking at possible futures, one domain seems to intersect with them all. Whether we are discussing the environment, food, mobility, or energy, one common denominator is materials science. Wikipedia Defines it as an interdisciplinary field focused on the design and discovery of new materials, particularly solids. Materials science incorporates elements of physics, chemistry, and engineering. The Wikipedia page reflects on why it intersects with so much:
“Many of the most pressing scientific problems humans currently face are due to the limits of available materials and how they are used. Thus, breakthroughs in materials science are likely to affect the future of technology significantly.”
When viewed through the lens of future innovation, it becomes clear that how materials evolve plays a significant role in both the speed of attainment, and societal impact. This recent Article makes this argument very clear. Author Kristin Toussaint describes how lab-grown wood could replace what would take decades to grow in nature. In growing fully formed shapes like a table, we can see a path to mitigating the environmental harm of the logging and construction industries (another intersection). A recent Paper from MIT details the process of growing wood-like plant tissue from cells extracted from the leaves of a zinnia plant, without soil or sunlight.
With our current Subtractive Manufacturing processes, we end up with a lot of waste – the trees we use from a Forest are no exception. Lab-grown wood eliminates that waste and allows us to preserve our forests. This application of materials science is likely to benefit society faster than lab-grown meats. Here is What Ms. Toussaint said on the topic:
“The idea is similar to lab-grown meat (which is also called cell-cultured meat) in that the researchers are producing isolated tissues without having to grow the whole plant, just like cell-cultured meat eliminates the need to raise an entire animal. But plant cell cultures are easier to grow than animal cell cultures, Beckwith says, meaning lab-grown wood or wood products could become cost-competitive more quickly.”
Ashley Beckwith is a mechanical engineering PhD student at MIT, and the lead author of the paper referenced above. Although we are still in the early days of this journey, we have seen exponential progression at work across many innovations, and there we should expect the same here. As the article states, the result is an acceleration of a shift away from plastics and other materials that end up in landfills, toward materials that can biodegrade. As science enables new forms of materials, realizing many of the innovations on the wheel are realized – with an opportunity to accelerate societal benefits.