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A vision of the future — new uses of known materials

Many products are based on novel applications of materials which were originally developed for other purposes. Here, we explain why you should keep an open mind when working with materials.

As recently reported in The Telegraph, Rolls-Royce is working with materials research company Superdielectrics Ltd. to build next-generation energy storage batteries using a polymer material originally designed for hard-wearing contact lenses. It is reported that the new polymer can create a capacitor which is between 1,000 and 10,000 times more effective than existing materials — and could enable electric cars to fully charge in just a few minutes.

Don’t just focus on one application

Historically, there are many examples of blockbuster products based on novel applications of materials which were originally developed for other purposes. A quick internet search reveals some well-known examples. Bubble wrap went from wallpaper to greenhouse insulation before hitting the heights as a packaging material. Play-Doh seems to have started off in a similar field of endeavour as a wallpaper cleaner before finding success as a pliable modelling clay for children.

A more recent, and perhaps even more bizarre, example of a novel use of a known material involves the super-black carbon nanotube material VantablackTM, developed by UK company Surrey NanoSystems for applications such as space telescopes. The light absorbing material is useful as it can reduce interference from reflections and thus improve signal-to-noise ratio in light sensing applications. Other technical optical and thermal applications have also been envisaged. However, more surprisingly, the material has been modified into a spray formulation and licensed to an individual for use in artistic works. This exclusive licensing arrangement has caused a media stir and a somewhat angry backlash from certain sectors of the artistic community.

Regardless of your views on whether exclusive licensing in certain fields of endeavour is morally correct, these examples serve to illustrate that one should not be blinkered when considering the usefulness of a new material product.

Looking beyond your own products

A company will generally seek to develop a new material with a specific end device or end application in mind. However, while commercial strategy will generally, and correctly, focus mainly on a company’s core competencies and markets, one should not discount potential alternate applications and blindly throw away revenue streams and commercial value in other markets.

Extreme applications feed wider commercial applications

Extreme applications drive the creation of exotic new materials to meet unusual product specifications. As such, companies working in such extreme applications spaces can provide a rich source of exotic materials solutions which can feed down into wider commercial applications. Examples of such companies in the UK include BAE Systems working on military and aerospace applications, through to Formula 1 companies such as McLaren developing cutting-edge motor racing technology. The cutting edge of today can become the everyday of tomorrow. Furthermore, while the more mundane day-to-day commercial applications can be a little less exciting, they may well be more lucrative in terms of market size.

New uses can be inventive

It is not always obvious that a known material will be useful in a particular application. As such, while it is not possible to patent a known material, it is possible to patent a novel and inventive use of a known material. So, if you’re working with a material, either new or known, my advice is to keep an open mind about its applications and look beyond your own product portfolio. After all, it would be very difficult indeed to argue that a material developed for hard-wearing contact lenses would obviously be useful for building next-generation energy storage batteries!

More information

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