Materials science at the frontiers

Where else can you get a wide glimpse into the frontier of materials discoveries if not at an event like the MRS Fall Meeting in Boston?    

I am just back from a stimulating trip to USA and then Germany (for an IEA hydrogen implementation agreement, as will be described later) where all rotated around scientific highlights and the researchers that could imagine them.

The last three years as one of the directors of the Materials Research Society (MRS) have been an incredible opportunity to serve an organization which counts almost 15,000 members from around the world. It has been an honour and pleasure to work with staff and scientists committed to ensure a vibrant future for the global community of materials researches. I have been inspired by MRS core values, my favourite above all: recognize that diversity drives innovation, excellence and new discoveries.

The importance of a vision

Especially this year we put our efforts in the strategic planning of how MRS activities, from meetings and publications, to outreach, can better position the Society for the future. I learned how important it is to have a vision and design a strategy to realize it. This is a lesson I hope will guide my future research, because sometimes I feel it is easy to get trapped in the day to day work, without stopping for a moment and thinking the reason for doing what we are doing.

The excitement was in the air at the Fall Meeting, with more than 6,500 attendees and plenty of scientific highlights and packed sessions. I particularly enjoyed the iMatSci Innovator Stage Pitches, where innovators for start-ups and universities presented a three-minute pitch of their new and original early stage materials-based products.

Millie Dresselhaus

My personal favourites were: a self-cleaning coating for solar panels obtained by actively steering the movement of water drops across the panel’s surface; microparticles of liquid metal in a metastable supercooled state that – when broken – rapidly solidifies solving issues caused by the high temperature processes otherwise involved in electronics; rubber-based robust electronics that maintain uninterrupted electrical power while stretching them.

Is recycling always best?

In addition to the many events to promote professional developments of the younger members, a special session on nanomaterials was organised in honour of the late Professor Millie Dresselhaus for her lifelong contribution and impact to the scientific community.

Finally, a panel discussion on the “Role of the circular materials economy” let the audience discuss with top experts on how can we advance the quest for new materials and at the same time conciliate the need to reduce their environmental impact. In other words, is recycling always best?

Hydrogen will play a major role

The last days of my trip were in Bavaria, at the Ringberg castle, for the meeting of the experts of IEA hydrogen implementation agreement, Task 32. Despite the prominence of news regarding batteries and electric vehicles, our group believe hydrogen will play a major role in the future, provided that efforts will be dedicated to build a suitable infrastructure.

Beezero hydrogenbil

For instance, the Japanese government wants to reach 160 hydrogen stations and 40,000 fuel cell vehicles in use by 2020 (against 90 stations and 2000 vehicles of today). To realise these targets the plan is to use high incentives and new regulations. This has to be done quickly because Japan wants to run the Olympic games of 2020 on hydrogen! 

In addition, it will be important to expand the experience of the consumer. An initiative in this respect is for instance going on in Munich, where to increase the visibility of hydrogen the citizens can use the car share service provided with 50 hydrogen cars. The experiment seems to proceed well and hold promises for the future. As experts, during the Task 32 meeting, we also discussed the various opportunities that hydrogen based materials can offer: as heat storage systems, for air conditioning, or for storage in concentrated solar plants, to mention some.

The imagination is the limit!

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