In my research group at Caltech, I study new properties of materials that emerge when you take nanoscale building blocks and organize them into 3D structures known as architectures. I predict that architected materials—substances built from the nanoscale up to have useful properties—will eventually replace conventional materials, not only in science and engineering but in many areas of daily life.
Lately, advances in 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing have made it possible to organize micro- and nano-size building blocks of matter into complex structures with great precision. We can now make new materials from components that range from just a little larger than 100 atoms to several millimeters in size.
This means scientists can decouple properties that have historically been linked together. For example, strong materials are typically heavy, and insulating materials like dinnerware are often brittle. But when ceramics and glass are architected by replacing solid blocks of material with a structure of the same size built of small struts, they can deform and reform like a sponge.
And there’s more—architected materials can evolve in space and time in response to a pre-programmed trigger. They can morph into different shapes to respond or adapt to a new environment or a stimulus. They can be made to release objects by relaxing their grip when heated or break apart at designated locations when strained.
This essay is part of MIT Technology Review’s 2022 Innovators Under 35 package recognizing the most promising young people working in technology today. See the full list here or explore the winners in this category below.