Could materials scientists model a better future?


Technology is rapidly changing the way we work, but in many fields, people don’t seem ready for it. They can’t leave their comfort zones and explore the benefits of human-machine collaboration.

It’s a thought I got from materials science and how materials scientists struggle to embrace change.

With all the technology we have today, you’d say the activity of materials scientists should be at its highest peak providing exceptional battery or solar cell performances. Humanity has never had the tools to model and process materials as it happens in the present. People 100, 50, or 30 years ago couldn’t even imagine the journey we’ve made.

For some reason though, materials scientists seem to have stopped caring about progress. The efforts and interest that brought us here vanished. And so did the curiosity to experiment with new technology. In recent years, you rarely hear about a fundamental breakthrough in the field. Is this the highest we can get? Why isn’t their more innovation in materials science?

The battle for rechargeable batteries

Many materials scientists today are involved in research regarding rechargeable batteries, the key element that enables us to maintain our lifestyles.

Advanced rechargeable batteries make possible a wide range of our daily activities. From cordless power tools to smartphones to e-bikes and electric cars, they all rely on this essential element--batteries that we can recharge thousands of times, which also use less energy and reduce waste.

Innovation, manufacturing, transport, and many other fields depend on rechargeable batteries. So, materials scientists seem to be mainly focused on getting better batteries that consume less, last longer and have a smaller impact on the environment.

But, is this what really happens behind the closed doors of laboratories?

The charm of being published 

Materials scientists today dedicate much of their activity to their studies. They’re continuously doing research and academic work, as they pursue higher degrees and Ph.D. titles.

Unfortunately, a significant part of the research and development in this field never leaves laboratories and the academic environment. Scientists settle for publishing articles and papers, instead of fighting to have their discoveries support real-life applications. 

Thousands of research papers related to materials science get published every year. There’s no doubt; it’s all original work that has educational value, but many of these reports and papers are just treating the same (or similar) topics over and over. It’s almost like writing a paper becomes the primary purpose of the research and not the possible applications outside a laboratory.

Scientists don’t find motivation in how they could remodel our future, but on how often their names get mentioned in research papers.

Using AI for a more effective approach

Maybe it’s time materials scientists took a step back and contemplated the tremendous amount of research they’ve created. Natural Language Processing (NLP) models could help them analyze all these articles and papers to identify current trends in the industry. This step would enable them to predict some possible shifts toward a more pragmatic approach to research. 

 (Any co-founder in the audience? :) )

 Solar cells, lithium-ion batteries, graphene nanoribbons, and carbon nanotubes. Many scientists believe that our future is tied to one or more of these innovations. They’re doing pretty well on paper, but somehow we struggle to implement them into real-life solutions. The ugly truth is that we’re still too far from having cost-effective, reliable solutions to store power--some that could meet our current and future needs, without damaging the environment. 

What do you think about the future of materials scientists? Can they stay relevant without leaving their laboratories for something more pragmatic? Or, are they close to making accurate predictions for the performance of functional devices?