Caressing The Future At A 'Petting Zoo For Materials'

Check out the awesome and weird things we found inside

Materials Library

Material Connexion

“Cow innards. Packaging made from mushrooms. A floor tile made out of snail poop.”

I’m standing amongst the shelves of one of the largest materials libraries in the world, and Andrew Dent, the library’s curator, is introducing me to some of the colorful samples hanging on the wall in front of us.

On the 17th floor of an office building near Rockefeller Center in New York City, Material Connexion has around 2,500 materials on display for clients to poke, prod, and bend. The library's original creator called it a petting zoo for new materials. The entire collection includes 7,500 different substances—such as bank cards, sneakers, speakers, shampoo bottles, and other items we interact with on a daily basis—which the company uses to help designers find the right materials to put into their products

“There are many material databases and libraries out there, but none as big or as well-organized as ours,” says Dent. And the collection is growing. Every year, the company adds 500 new materials to the library, after running them by a jury of eight to 12 designers, architects, and engineers. The library encompasses everything from natural products to fabrics, polymers, and 3D-printed gizmos.

“What we class as a material is anything that can be manipulated or changed in order to create something else,” says Dent. “If I can imagine my clients using it to make something else, then it’s a material.”

Along with finding materials to add to their ever-growing collection, Dent and his colleagues also help match their clients (which include Adidas, BMW, and Logitech) with materials that meet specific performance requirements. “Take for example this coffee cup,” says Dent, picking up my paper Starbucks mug. If a company wanted to start making disposable coffee cups out of something else, Dent says his team would take the performance requirements—it must be able to hold hot liquids; it has to fit printed logos on it; it should be lightweight so it can be shipped—and try to find a substitute.

Other times, companies will be looking for a more sustainable packaging material. And sometimes the requests are pretty far-out—like when BMW wanted to make a car out of fabric back in 2002. The lightweight, shape-shifting GINA car needed a fabric that could stretch, stand up to rain and sunshine, and be impenetrable to rocks and pebbles flying out from under the tires of the car in front of it. Dent’s team suggested a polyurethane-coated Spandex fabric. The car debuted in 2008, but never really evolved beyond a prototype.

BMW's Shape-Shifting, Fabric-Lined GINA Car

BMW

BMW Designworks, which helped to create GINA, relies on Material Connexion for about half of its projects. “It’s almost like the Lexis Nexis of materials,” says Sandy McGill, BMW Designworks’ lead designer. “Material Connexion can be this bridge between the science and engineering behind the materials and the creative process. As we explore different materials, it allows us to look at things in a different way, and it sometimes leads us to different discoveries.”

Here are some of the most interesting materials we found while wandering through the library:

Blue Goo

This is one of the most popular materials at Material Connexion, because it's super fun to squish. It's been hard to find applications for it, however. "It's great cushioning in seats, but it's just too heavy," says Dent.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Mac-N-Sulation

This may look like dinner, but it's actually insulation. Made from soy, it's intended as an alternative to petroleum-based foams. It emits no chlorofluorocarbons or hydrochlorofluorocarbons--compounds that can be nasty for the environment.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

It's Electric

This fabric contains carbon powder that allows it to conduct electricity. It's good at staying static-free, and can go through the washing machine safely. Material Connexion thinks it could be used for uniforms, conveyor belts, and carpets.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Bioleather

This tough fabric was produced by bacteria. It's composed of the cellulose that some bacteria secrete after eating something sugary (pineapple juice, in this case). Dent thinks that the future of materials innovation lies in biological products. "Nature makes things with very little energy, with zero waste, and relies upon its environment in order to adapt," he says. "Humans haven’t learned to make things well yet.” For more on bioleather, including how to grow your own, check out our feature, Cultured Couture.Material Connexion

'Counter' Intuitive

Tiles made from shredded magazines could be used to cover walls and countertops. Wonder if there are any Popular Science issues in there?Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Snail Poop

To produce tiles with this "irregular texture and mottled color," researchers are feeding dyed paper to snails. The resulting excrement (the weird spirally thing above) gets ground up and mixed with linseed oil and gum.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

3D Printing

Although 3D printing has done wonders for the world of prototyping, Dent is concerned that companies' control of the materials could stifle creativity. "The 3D printer companies might only provide five colors or only a few types of plastics, and if they don't supply the new material, I can't work with it," he says. "So it's controlled by the machine makers, and that doesn't happen in any other industry." Luckily, there's hope in hacking.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Innards

Cow stomachs can be turned into leather. This sample is made from the rumen and reticulum, the larger two of a cow's four stomachs, and has more complex texture than standard leather.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Not An Avocado

This moldable material is made from agricultural waste, including plants and dust. It's biodegradable and has good acoustic properties. Material Connexion recommends it for use in speakers, musical instruments ... and coffins? It doesn't make good guacamole though, and luckily there's no xenomorph hiding inside.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Fungal Foam

Here's another foam replacement. In this case, agricultural waste--including cotton burrs, rice, and buckwheat hulls--feeds mushrooms, whose roots spread throughout the junk and pull it together into a solid panel. Potential applications include packaging, insulation, and, oh yeah, disposable drones that could explore other planets.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

Just Dessert

A greener alternative to plastic grocery bags, this material is composed of 60 percent tapioca starch and 40 percent polyethylene (a kind of plastic). It feels like waxpaper, and it's biodegradable, washable, and durable.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science