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Chemicals and materials: how we’re smartening up for a cleaner, safer future

The materials from which our man-made world is built are set to change radically over the coming years

Rhiannon Edwards


The production and use of chemicals and materials will play a big part in our planet’s future. More specifically, redesigning the processes by which we arrive at usable chemical products and create and apply materials will help to curb our impact on the planet and secure resources for generations to come. Transition to a circular economy will also bring cost efficiencies alongside ecological benefits.

The three industries that will see the biggest changes are:

  • building and construction

  • fashion and textiles

  • aerospace

Building and construction

Today, building and construction accounts for 36% of global energy demand, 40% of CO2 usage and 25% of water usage. Reforming its working processes is urgent. Alongside other targeted efforts, the development of sustainable materials is set to reduce this impact.

Change will happen from design stage onward, and nature-inspired structures are set to transform energy usage in buildings. Green roofs and window placement that makes the best use of natural light and heat are early examples.

What structures are made of will also radically change. There is a big focus on cement-free concrete, swapping one of the most widely used and most harmful materials for eco-friendly substitutes such as timbercrete, hempcrete and mycelium (a concrete made with fungus) among other materials.

Insulation is a growth area, and engineers are battling to produce the next best products that are made of environmentally friendly materials and reach hyper efficiency. Conventional insulation systems in the building and construction industry are in fibrous, granular and cellular forms. Tomorrow’s insulation will make use of nanotechnology – specifically nanocellulose aerogel, one of the world’s lightest solid materials, which provides both water protection and heat insulation.

Fashion and textiles

The fashion industry is almost as big a polluter as construction, particularly because the emphasis of the past few decades’ has been on fast fashion, which has left a legacy of microplastics in water and large amounts of textiles in landfill.

The principal focus of current research is on textiles that are durable and made to last, for applications such as uniforms and workwear. Smart textiles that are water repellent, anti-microbial and offer high performance will transform the way clothes are used in settings such as hospitals. It is likely these innovations will transfer to the consumer market, too.

How we make and use chemicals and materials now will secure resources for generations to come

Largely, these smart fabrics are made smart because of chemical coatings – and this is a theme that transfers into the aerospace sector.


High-tech coatings such as those with photoconductive and self-healing properties are soon to find a place in the aerospace industry for their durability, high corrosion resistance and properties that protect against flames and heat.

In addition, thermal sprays, nano- and graphene-based coatings are lightweight and shield against electromagnetic and radio-frequency interference.

Much as with daily mobility, electrification is aerospace’s answer to the problems of air pollution through the use of carbon-based fuels. Combustion-based fuel will continue to be the mainstay in the aerospace industry in the short term, but the use of electric-based drives in ships, vehicles and unmanned aerial systems will grow, thanks to their improved stealth and ease-of-recharge characteristics. Electric or hybrid power systems enable new combat capabilities such as “silent watch”, and reduce the logistical footprint.

The shift to electrification will mean the emphasis is shifting towards efficient and eco-friendly battery chemistry, and aerospace manufacturers are forming partnerships with vehicle manufacturers to share their learnings.

Metal-air, nanowire, liquid metal, proton, flexible, and bio battery technologies are all finding applications in land, sea and air vehicles. Even short-haul domestic flights – a huge drain on resources today – will one day be electrically powered.

Seismic change

The huge changes to the chemicals and materials used in industry have their origins in research and development labs across the world. Here, digital technologies are speeding up discovery while reducing cost.

Artificial intelligence is allowing researchers to test and learn based on data rather than physical experimentation, and the internet of things is allowing for enhanced data collection and more nuanced predictive abilities. Wearables and cloud computing will also allow future human resources to be used to best effect.

The materials that make up our world are set to transform over the next decade, bringing us a safer, cleaner, smarter and more efficient future – and the economic benefits to match.

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