Top Materials Science Topics for Research in 2020:
- Materials informatics
- Selective laser sintering
- Topological insulators
Materials science and engineering as a discipline has been around since the enlightenment in the 18th century. It is a hugely influential subject, without which we wouldn’t understand, discover nor make use of most of the materials around us today. Without materials science there would be no aeroplanes, cars, computers, smartphones, recycling and most other things you see around you.
Even before the discipline came to be, materials were a resource that caused the rise and fall of empires, with those which first made use of new metals, such as bronze or iron, dominating their neighbours.
Almost all major universities in the world with scientific and engineering studies have a course or department dedicated to the topic. And materials science and engineering encompass some diverse and extremely interesting topics:
- Metallurgy involves the study of alloys and has brought us materials like stainless steel and nickel-based superalloys
- Crystallography has brought us semiconductors, superconductors and even the discovery of the structure of DNA
- Studying polymers has brought us all kinds of plastics, from disposable plastics, to organic electronics and biopolymers
- Composite materials include steel-reinforced concrete, space shuttle thermal insulation tiles and lightweight carbon-fibre composites
- Ceramics and glasses include impact-resistant glass-ceramics for your smartphone screen, electronic materials, coatings for drills and saws
- Biomaterials include materials that mimic nature
- Nanomaterials include materials which are size on the length scale of nanometres, one millionth of a millimetre.
Within these disciplines are a plethora of different research topics that could be the next big game changer. Just as the discovery of semiconductors brought us into the computer age (or silicon age), perhaps memristors or topological insulators will take us to the next paradigm shift with quantum computers. Perhaps transition metal dichalcogenides will open up a new range of optoelectronic devices. Or maybe metamaterials will unlock the secrets of invisibility.
So if you’re studying materials science and engineering and looking to start a research project, which is the most likely topic to be the next big game changer? It’s important you choose wisely, as having experience in the right area could make you very valuable to new industries.
The quickest trending research topics
The topics we found with the quickest growing number of publications per year are summarised in the table below:
These numbers do not correspond to the total number of publications, but rather the rate at which each topic is trending. If we look at the number of publications per year from 1995 to 2018 we get more information:
Let’s start with graphene, the research topic on our list with by far the highest number of publications in 2018 at over 20,000. Graphene is the material that received the most hype, especially since 2009. It may seem lately from the drop in media reports about the larger than life properties of the thinnest material in the world that graphene was an interesting material for research but has lost it’s novelty factor.
However, the stats above show that the number of publications for graphene is still increasing strongly from year to year, albeit it with a slightly slower rate of increase in comparison to the period from 2009 to 2014.
Why is this? As our understanding of the material matures, research is transitioning into finding ways to produce graphene at larger scales and also into new interesting applications.
The material with the second largest number of publications on our list are perovskites. This is mainly driven by the surge in interest in perovskite solar cells starting in 2012 when it was realised that much higher efficiencies were possible than were being achieved up until that time. In 2009 the record in efficiency for perovskite solar cells was at 3.8 %, while by 2018 that had increased to 23.3 %.
3. Materials informatics
Next on the list, materials informatics is a topic that could have a hugely transformative effect on materials science. Big data is expanding into all areas of technology and materials science is no exception.
4. Selective laser sintering
Selective laser sintering (SLS) is one method used in additive manufacturing, mainly for metals and polymers. It is no surprise that, just as with materials informatics, digitalisation is also having a massive impact on manufacturing industries. So much so, that additive manufacturing is considered as one aspect of the predicted 4th industrial revolution.
If you would like to read more about SLS and additive manufacturing in general, we are continuously bringing out new post on the topic, for example, Everything You Need to Know about Metal 3D Printing.
This is another very interesting topic, and the second fastest growing research topic on our list. Metamaterials are materials, which are designed to have properties not found anywhere in nature. They are usually composed of multiple materials which appear in repeating patters.
Metamaterials have been designed to affect electromagnetic radiation in a way never seen in bulk materials. For example, metamaterials have been engineered to have a negative index of refraction, or for superlenses. A form of invisibility was also demonstrated, opening up the area of metamaterial cloaking.
This term is the fastest growing term found in scientific publications by far, with a 54 % increase in occurrences from 2017 to 2018. This is driven by research into transition metal dichalcogenides. These are materials with the arrangement of MX2 where M is transition metal atom (e.g. Mo, W, Ti, V, and Nb) and X is chalcogen atom (S, Se or Te).
The main interest in them lies in the fact that they can be made into monolayers, similarly to graphene. One example material is molybdenum sulphide, MoS2. These materials have potential application as superconductors and semiconductors.
7. Topological insulators
The final item that we see will be a growing topic in 2019 are topological insulators. These are materials which behave as an insulator in its interior, however, on can conduct on its surface. This surface conduction involves symmetry-protected surface states.
Much of the interest in this material at the moment is unlocking some of the many secrets of physics. It is, however, promising for spintronic devices and transistors for quantum computing. The latter may well become one of the most important topics of the coming years.
What's your choice?
So if your interest lies in new electronic materials for computing, perhaps topological insulators and transition metal dichalcogenides are the areas you need to delve into.
If, rather, you’re interested in renewable energies, perovskite solar cells are a research topic that is growing quickly. Or, if you want to see how AI and big data can help us discover new materials, materials informatics might be your thing.
Whatever you’re interested, there’s a field of materials science and engineering for you!
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