At the Frontiers: Living in a Material World

Living in a Material World-The Science and Technology of Materials from the Nanoscale to 747's

Plastics that conduct electricity, metals that are both strong and light, and semiconductors that convert waste heat to usable electrical power: these are but a handful of the fruits of modern materials science. From the Stone Age to the Silicon Age, the pace of technology has been fundamentally limited by the properties of existing materials. Advances in materials science such as these have triggered technological revolutions throughout history, from the birth of commercial air travel through advanced aluminum alloys to the internet, built upon a backbone of glass fibers of incredible optical clarity. 

Advanced materials research and development (R&D) is one of the most exiting areas in science/engineering today. Progress in far ranging areas such as replicating human organs to the creation of sustainable colonies in space is inseparable from successful materials R&D. With the aid of electron microscopes and 3-4D printers, for example, this important domain is poised to transform the world we know today into the one about which we dream.

In this course, students investigate the cutting-edge materials that shape our modern world from the macroscale down to dimensions millions of times smaller than a human hair. This hands-on exploration includes all five principal classes of modern materials: metals, ceramics, polymers, semiconductors, and composites and connects breakthroughs in these material classes to leaps in technology. Students see how understanding of the fundamental properties of materials—optical, electrical, magnetic, and mechanical—has translated into technologies such as bullet-proof vests, hypersonic travel, solar cells, and much more. They actively investigate questions including:

  • How and why does the ability to route and manipulate light underpin so much of our current lives? How might a butterfly further revolutionize these advances?
  • What is nanophotonics? Quantum communications? How might each affect our daily lives with further advances in materials?
  • What is special about the properties of silicon, and how have these properties led to the computers we use today? What are the properties of semiconductors and the technologies in which they have resulted relate to the fundamental manipulation of silicon. What are some future implications?
  • In what ways have magnets only a few billionths of a meter in size as well as “supermagnets” of unprecedented strength led to technology breakthroughs ranging from medicine to computer hardware? How might the unique properties of such materials be manipulated to develop new technologies?  

            Led by a researcher working at the forefront of materials technology, this course engages students with numerous hands-on activities designed to foster fundamental knowledge of materials science and apply this knowledge to understanding the technologies they underpin.  During this course, students synthesize nanomaterials, image matter at the scale of individual atoms, and even get some exercise bending bars of solid metal!  After an initial overview of materials science, the course will progress to case studies highlighting specific material classes and properties.  This course will challenge students to understand not only the fundamental science of materials, but also the vital connections between materials and the technologies they have enabled.

The Ti2 team engages area research institutions and industries to help students understand how and why people are investigating the science behind and developing innovative solutions to the topics and issues covered in this course. It is likely that this course will include a visit to nanoscale research center at a major local university during which students will have the opportunity to study matter at the scale of individual atoms.