Material Prospects

In the 21st Century, materials are no longer thought of as being static, uniform, bulk resources that must be cut, milled, cast, or formed into manufactured products for architecture and other constructed environments. In our age, where the domestication of atoms has led to the design of materials at the molecular scale, researchers are fundamentally altering the properties of matter, our relationship to it, and how we experience it. Today’s new materials are developed from the bottom-up, and they are made to express various behaviors and functions that we have designed for them.

As such, recent advancements in the development of new materials offer tremendous possibilities for innovation. This is particularly so with smart materials, biomaterials, and nanostructured materials that adapt to changes that they “sense” in their environment, such as variations in temperature, humidity, pressure, or light. From new substances that change color, fluidity, and shape, to metamaterials and advanced composites that luminesce and generate electricity, these advancements in the creation of novel materials offer an increasingly broad array of opportunities to contemporary architects and designers.

Therefore, during this Material Prospects seminar session, you’ll be learning about recent developments in advanced materials, and then you’ll generate some ideas that envision how these substances might be used, innovatively and/or creatively, in the making of future constructed environments. Your work will be important, because your ideas will lend vision to a range of possible new futures. As you work to excite our imagination, the quality, credibility, and originality of your ideas and vision will matter.

Before June 26th at 9:00 AM, you are to complete the following:

  • choose one or two other students to work with and, together, form a two- or three-person team
  • visit our Material Prospects 2023 MIRO Board and enter the first and last names of all of the people on your team
  • read all of the SELECTED REPORTS on material discoveries that are listed below
  • from this list of selected reports, your team is to choose one material discovery as a prompt that excites your imagination
  • meet with your team to discuss how this particular material discovery might serve as a means to create constructed environments that address or engage (but need not solve) an issue that your team has identified
  • and then post a few of your initial ideas in an area somewhere on the Material Prospects 2023 MIRO Board, along with a bit of information on your chosen material … we’ll reference this MIRO Board information during our class discussion.

When our class meets in person on June 27th at 10:00 AM:

  • Peter Yeadon will deliver a presentation on advanced materials and materials-driven innovation
  • then your team will be asked to talk about the advanced material you chose to consider, and how your team thinks it might be used to address or engage an issue (or issues) that you’ve identified … you’ll have five minutes to deliver a few ideas using the MIRO Board
  • and then we’ll have a class discussion that focuses on the ideas that you’ve presented.

After our class meets, your team will develop and submit the assignment, which is an illustrated essay that describes (in 500 of your own words) and illustrates (with not more than five original images that your team has created) what the specific material is and how it might be used to address/engage an issue that you have identified.

For this assignment, you might decide to focus on issues surrounding health, or safety, or energy, or climate change, or privacy, or community, or memory, or play, or provocation, or territory, or communication, or war, or new experiences, or displacement, or one of any number of issues that architects can engage by design. The kind of issue that you identify doesn’t really matter, and you’re not being asked to solve anything either; however, in developing and articulating your proposition, you should consider a range of critical questions, including:

  • What is the issue that your design proposition addresses/engages, and why is this issue of concern?
  • How would your design address/engage this issue?
  • How would your design make use of, and be enabled by, the material discovery that you selected?
  • Does the selected material technology enable us to do something that we haven’t been able to do before?
  • Is the material vital to the proposed design/application?
  • What new challenges or problems might the design/application introduce?

Your assignment is due before 9:00 AM on July 3rd. Upload your text and images to our Material Prospects 2023 MIRO Board. Make sure the names of all team members appear on your submission. Be original. If the work, ideas, and words of others are used in any way, then properly identify and cite their information. The passing off of someone else’s ideas, writing, or work as one’s own is plagiarism; it is a form of academic misconduct that carries a penalty. Similarly, do not submit any images or texts or trademarks that you do not own (i.e., that may infringe on the copyright of others). If you’re using generative AI (e.g, DALL-E or Midjourney) to create your images, then please include the text prompts that you used for each image.

Late submissions or incomplete submissions will receive an F.


For this assignment, your team is to choose only one recent material advancement from the following list. Click on the titles for hyperlinks to the reports (for any of the links or links, you might have to delete the cache/cookies for their site and reload). Some of these reports provide technical details/data on the science behind the discoveries. We’re not scientists, we’re designers, so please don’t get lost in those details. The important thing is to grasp the general conclusions of what’s possible and what’s not.

3D-printable glass is made from proteins and biodegrades

Researchers in China have transformed amino acids and peptides — the building blocks of proteins — into glass. Not only is the biomolecular glass transparent, but it can be 3D printed and cast in molds. The paper suggests that the glass biodegrades pretty quickly, but wouldn’t be suitable for some applications such as drinks bottles because the liquid would cause it to decompose.

Low-Cost Gel Film Can Pluck Drinking Water From Desert Air

A low-cost gel film made of abundant materials that can pull water from the air in even the driest climates. The materials that facilitate this reaction cost a mere $2 per kilogram, and a single kilogram can produce more than 6 liters of water per day in areas with less than 15% relative humidity and 13 liters in areas with up to 30% relative humidity.

Liquid crystal polymer learns to move and grab objects

Researchers at Aalto University and Tampere University succeeded in conditioning a solid gel so that it melted to become liquid under the influence of light alone. The same researchers have taught a liquid crystal polymer to move, and to stick to an object of a given color.

Temperature-sensing building material changes color to save energy

A chameleon-like building material that changes its infrared color—and how much heat it absorbs or emits—based on the outside temperature. On hot days, the material can emit up to 92 percent of the infrared heat it contains, helping cool the inside of a building. On colder days, however, the material emits just 7 percent of its infrared, helping keep a building warm.

New material could be used to make a liquid metal robot

A liquid metal lattice that can be crushed but returns to its original shape on heating has been developed by Pu Zhang and colleagues at Binghamton University (State University of New York at Binghamton). The team created the liquid metal lattice using a special mixture of bismuth, indium and tin known as Field’s alloy. This alloy is then encapsulated in a silicone shell membrane.

‘Smart Plastic’ Material is Step Forward Toward Soft, Flexible Robotics and Electronics

Inspired by living things from trees to shellfish, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin set out to create a plastic much like many life forms that are hard and rigid in some places and soft and stretchy in others­. Their success is a first: using only light and a catalyst to change properties such as hardness and elasticity in molecules of the same type.

A multifunctional shape-morphing elastomer with liquid metal inclusions

A soft multifunctional material composed of liquid crystal elastomer embedded with microscale droplets of liquid metal. The material can function like a soft artificial muscle actuator and can be programmed to reversibly change shape when stimulated with heat or electricity.

Self-charging, ultra-thin device that generates electricity from air moisture

Imagine being able to generate electricity by harnessing moisture in the air around you with just everyday items like sea salt and a piece of fabric, or even powering everyday electronics with a non-toxic battery that is as thin as paper. Researchers have developed a new moisture-driven electricity generation (MEG) device made of a thin layer of fabric (about 0.3 mm in thickness) consisting of sea salt, carbon ink, and a hydrogel.

New polymer repeatedly morphs into different shapes

Researchers from China’s Zhejiang University have developed a new type of polymer that can be caused to revert to multiple different forms on demand. The polymer can form itself into many different shapes, by combining two ingredients, one with elastic deformation properties and one with plastic deformation properties.

Objects can now change colors like a chameleon

A team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created a new system that uses reprogrammable ink to let objects change colors when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) and visible light sources. Dubbed “PhotoChromeleon,” the system uses a mix of photochromic dyes that can be sprayed or painted onto the surface of any object to change its color — a fully reversible process that can be repeated infinitely.

HELIOS (Healable, Low-field Illuminating Optoelectronic Stretchable) Elastomers

The new stretchable material, when used in light-emitting capacitor devices, enables highly visible illumination at much lower operating voltages, and is also resilient to damage due to its self-healing properties.

Mechanoluminescent polymer lights up under stress

An international team of researchers has made polyurethanes that glow a variety of colors when stretched. The material then instantly switches off when relaxed, thanks to mechanically interlocked molecular structures called rotaxanes. The team made blue-, green-, and orange-glowing polymers and combined them to produce a white one.

Acoustic textile can hear sounds

A piezoelectric fiber that enables fabrics to detect sound has been developed. According to the research team, a single strand of this fiber can turn tens of square meters of fabric into a microphone that senses mechanical vibrations created by sound and converts them into an electrical signal.

Janus textile could keep you warm and cool you down

Researchers in Belgium have unveiled the design for a fabric that could keep a person warm when worn one way, while cooling them down if worn inside out.

Liquid flow is steered on surface

Inspired by a conifer leaf, researchers at City University of Hong Kong have developed an artificial surface that causes different liquids to flow in different directions, depending on their surface tension.

Shape memory polymers can lift a body that is 1000 times its own mass

Polymers that visibly change shape when exposed to temperature changes are nothing new, but this new material undergoes a shape change that can be triggered by body heat alone, opening the door for new medical and other applications.

New sponge-like structure converts solar energy into steam

A new material structure developed at MIT generates steam by soaking up the sun. The structure — a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam — is a porous, insulating material structure that floats on water.

Smart aerogel turns air into drinking water

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have created a substance that extracts water from air without any external power source. Other scientists have previously devised ways to extract water from air, but their designs had to be powered by sunlight or electricity, and had moving parts that had to be opened and closed.

Scientists invent threads to detect gases when woven

A novel fabrication method produces dyed threads that change color when they detect a variety of gases. The researchers demonstrated that the threads can be read visually, or even more precisely by use of a smartphone camera, to detect changes of color due to analytes as low as 50 parts per million.