If industrial designers are unsung, materials scientists are even more unsung. You don't know the name of the person who shaped the handle on your coffeepot, and you darn sure don't know who invented the plastic it's made out of.
We don't always know their names, but we know the fruits of their labor. So what stuff did the guys in white lab coats come up with that made the news this year? The hands-down Materials traffic winner was "Kinetic Sand," which results from mixing regular sand with an ingredient from Silly Putty. If you haven't already seen it, peep the video, be amazed.
A material nearly as humble as sand, cement, also caught rec' this year. Not regular cement of course, but the pollution-killing, smog-eating variety first developed by Italian manufacturer Italcementi. Once the magic ingredient of titanium oxide is added to the mix, everything from Roman churches to sidewalks in Chicago to Dutch roads do the environment a good turn—while remaining self-cleaning, as mere rainwater rinses them off.
Speaking of rainwater, it never seems to fall in a consistent schedule, which farmers know only too well. That's why Mexican engineer Sergio Jesus Vaelasco created Solid Rain, which is essentially instant water. Vaelasco's invention can let farmers dodge droughts, and make greenery possible in environments where it was not previously viable.
And it's not only plants that are in need of water, of course; humans in disaster areas are especially prone to having their safe supply of drinking water cut off. Thus a company called Hydration Technology Innovations collaborated with Eastman Chemical to create the HydroPack, a portable water filtration system that uses a special polymer membrane. "Technology and materials have come together to create a hydration solution that requires no electricity or external power source and can utilize a wide range of water sources."
On the medical front, a Spanish company called Tecnalia developed an unusual fabric called VarStiff. Its unique properites enable it to go from hard to soft and back again, via a vacuum pump. The inventors are thinking of applications in medical casts, but somewhere an ID'er must be drooling at the idea of using it to create some seriously-flatpacking furniture.
An even more unusual fabric is that developed by Manel Torres. Called Fabrican, it actually comes in a can and can be sprayed onto people or objects to create the ultimate form-fitting garment. It's sort of like if Spider-Man used his webs in the name of fashion.
Lastly, chemical giant BASF sought a fun way to draw attention to their impressive stable of materials; thus they cooked up the unique "Concept 1865 - Rethinking Materials" project, which created an old-school direct-drive bicycle with all new-school materials. A combination of "high-performance plastics, specialty foams, epoxy resin and polyurethane materials" all came together to make this 21st-Century version of the penny farthing.