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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials June 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Cassandra Harris

Synthetic Murray Materials

Why is this topic significant?

Researchers have developed a ceramic with a porous network that replicates the vascular systems of living organisms. Vascular-materials design could prove an effective approach to enhancing the performance of a variety of emerging and mature technologies.

Description

Plants and animals possess vascular systems that have evolved to maximize the transport of liquids and gases and rates of reactions. The pore-size ratios of the vascular systems of living organisms obey Murray's law. Researchers from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England), Wuhan University of Technology (Wuhan, China), and the University of Namur (Namur, Belgium) have developed the first so-called synthetic Murray material—zinc oxide (ZnO) comprising pores with size ratios that obey Murray's law—using drop casting and self-assembly of ZnO nanoparticles.

The researchers reported a five-, twenty-five-, and fortyfold increase in the rate of reaction, in comparison with the rate for conventional porous ZnO, when the synthetic Murray material was used as a photocatalyst, gas sensor, and lithium-ion- (Li-ion-) battery electrode, respectively. The researchers attributed the electrochemical performance of the synthetic Murray material to its vascular pore network. Their work appeared in the scientific journal Nature Communications in April 2017.

Implications

Reaction kinetics plays an important role in electrochemical processes that are relevant to many technological applications. For example, increasing the rate of electron transfer and corresponding lithium intercalation and deintercalation at the electrodes of Li-ion batteries increases the charge and discharge rate of the battery. Increasing the charge and discharge rate is a key objective of researchers developing Li-ion-battery technologies, particularly for electric-vehicle applications. Also, increasing the rate of gas decomposition at the electrodes of electrochemical gas detectors increases the speed of gas detection by the device.

Impacts/Disruptions

Synthetic Murray materials are an example of how bioinspired materials engineering could pave the way for performance improvements of a variety of devices, including separation membranes, fuel cells, medical implants, and energy harvesters. Synthetic Murray materials are currently at an academic level, and further research and development is necessary before the technology has practical use in these applications. In particular, further work is necessary to develop synthetic Murray materials composed of other materials; ZnO finds use in some electrochemical applications, but it is not a state-of-the-art material for use in many commercial electrochemical devices.

Furthermore, challenges exist in the large-scale fabrication of synthetic Murray materials suitable for device applications. Preparation of porous ceramic and metallic materials for use in electrochemical devices typically involves pore-forming sacrificial templates and sintering to ensure that the material has strength. The researchers prepared the synthetic Murray material they developed without sintering; consequently, its durability is likely questionable. Sintering the material would cause the material's pore structure to change and therefore likely remove its unique electrochemical properties that are attributable to its pore structure. Solution-based self-assembly (the spontaneous organization) of nanoparticles into porous structures is in its infancy, but it could prove an effective low-temperature and therefore low-cost route for the production of synthetic Murray materials. Further research is necessary to understand whether opportunities exist to enhance the durability of synthetic Murray materials prepared by solution-based self-assembly.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Catalysis, fuel cells, gas sensors, implant devices, rechargeable batteries, separation membranes, solid-state synthesis

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Mining in Outer Space

Why is this topic significant?

Outer space could represent an opportunity to mine materials for use in a wide range of technologies. Government and private organizations are establishing programs to explore the potential of space-based mining.

Description

In May 2017, a chief commander at China's Lunar Exploration Program announced the agency's plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious metals. The agency hopes to launch its first spacecraft by 2020 and eventually to develop robotic technology capable of excavating and transporting asteroid material to Earth. NASA has announced several programs to survey and extract resources from asteroids, and private companies are also looking toward asteroid mining. Deep Space Industries (Silicon Valley, California) is developing a spacecraft—Prospector-1—that it plans to launch by 2020 to prospect asteroids for natural resources, and Planetary Resources (Redmond, Washington) is developing software tools for prospecting asteroids.

Opportunities could also exist to extract resources from the moon. In 2017, Moon Express (Cape Canaveral, Florida) will become the first private enterprise to land a spacecraft on the moon. The company claims that the mission will be the first of many that aim to mine metals and moon rock for sale on Earth. Ispace (Tokyo, Japan) has announced plans to begin prospecting the Moon in 2018, and, in December 2016, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to develop prospecting and mining technologies.

Implications

Asteroid composition varies; asteroids that are rich in volatile organic compounds or precious metals exist. According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 500-meter-wide platinum-rich (approximately 100 grams per ton) asteroid could contain as much as 1.5 times the known platinum reserves on Earth. Outer space could provide an abundant source of raw materials—the reserves of which on Earth are either naturally low or declining as a result of mining operations.

At present, the technology necessary for space-based mining is underdeveloped. Although several space probes have recovered samples from asteroids and moons, significant technical challenges exist in developing the technology capable of refining and transporting large quantities of asteroid or moon material to Earth. The commercial development of space-based mining will likely require major capital investment and advances in robotic technology.

Impacts/Disruptions

Space-based mining is likely many years away from commercialization, but concerted efforts in the field could lead to proof-of-concept outer-space-mining missions within the next 5 years and larger-scale missions within the next 10 to 15 years. Although the future of space-based mining is highly uncertain, developments in space-based mining is an area to monitor, because the technology has the potential to be highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint.

Reserves of some metals—such as zinc, lead, and silver—that are essential to various industrial applications are forecast to deplete to levels at which extraction is no longer economically viable by 2030 (unless researchers discover new mineral deposits). Concerns about the security of the supply of certain resources are driving efforts to develop novel extraction and recycling technologies and to substitute critical materials with cheaper abundant materials in a variety of technological applications. Space-based mining, if economically and technologically feasible, has the potential to disrupt these efforts. Equally, space-based mining may complement these efforts if the supply of certain raw materials is unable to keep pace with growing demand, particularly from low-carbon industries.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

3D printing, aerospace, energy, robotics, materials, mining

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: