Future of materials

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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 In the field of materials, I think we need to look both forward and backward when we think about what to expect over the next 40 years.

Looking back, chemists and chemical engineers have been associated with many positive contributions to society such as the development of numerous drugs to treat disease, herbicides and pesticides to improve crop yields, and synthetic plastics for everything from cellular phones to wind-proof clothing and bullet-proof vests. While responding to the demands of consumers, it is has also increasingly been recognized that these developments have also contributed to serious societal problems such as environmental pollution and health effects from chemical processes and products, a huge demand for energy, drug resistance (particularly to antibiotics) and ever-increasing landfills of non-degradable plastics from consumer products.

I think the next 40 years in materials research will be about sorting these issues out and helping society address the challenges of the future.

For example, there will be a big push to replace traditional non-degradable plastics with biodegradable materials. However, consumers will not want to compromise on cost or properties, so there is still a lot of work to do.

Makers of materials are also major contributors to the development of alternative energy sources, such as solar cells and fuel cells. There is still a long way to go in terms of cost and efficiency, but with increasing attention on these areas, steady progress is being made.

Global fossil fuel reserves are destined to be depleted, and there will be no choice but to turn to alternative energy sources.

Finally, people are living longer than ever before, creating increasing demands for therapeutic treatments and products to improve life expectancy and quality. While the growth of traditional pharma has slowed in recent years, a materials-based approach to health and medicine is experiencing a dramatic growth.

For example, this can involve the development of drug delivery vehicles for currently known pharmaceuticals to improve their properties. It can also involve materials for the delivery of DNA- and protein-based therapeutics, which are emerging through dramatic advancements in the biological sciences. With people living longer, medical implants and joint replacements will also need to last longer. This will require the development of improved materials.

In addition, tissue engineering is a field currently experiencing dramatic growth. This means that rather than receiving an organ transplant from a donor, we could receive a new liver, pancreas, or blood vessel grown on a biodegradable polymer scaffold.

With the current rapid pace of this field, I think the production of organs by tissue engineering could become a reality over the next 40 years.

Elizabeth Gillies is the Canada Research Chair in the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical and Biochemical Engineering in the Faculty of Science.