The key to technological progress: materials

A frequently overlooked driver of innovation

There is general consensus these days that our fundamental needs as human beings go beyond food and energy, and increasingly include raw materials –especially the kinds of materials that are extracted or produced from raw materials. It is materials that make it possible to translate concepts into technical realities and achieve certain functions. How materials provided the actual key to the development of a technology in the fi rst place is the topic looked at by Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Jost, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Material Development and Testing (WEP) at Pforzheim University.

There are many examples of such developments, which can only be covered briefl y here and are thus consciously summarized in this list (in chronological order): hardenable aluminum alloys; fi ber-reinforced composites; metal carbides; high-temperature polymers; metallic glasses; shape-memory alloys; fiber glass used to transmit information; micro-alloyed, fine-grained structural steels; ultra-high strength materials (based on polymers, ceramics, and metals); materials offering high-temperature superconductivity; implant materials; ultra-light metals etc. Under closer examination, two out of every three technical innovations actually boil down to material developments. As well as materials developed totally from scratch, these naturally include redevelopments or optimizations of known materials. Even if all fi elds of technology and industries need material innovations, unfortunately these often receive nothing like the degree of public recognition they deserve.

Nonetheless, the German government and a variety of funding partners have also recognized the potential in this area and are paving the way for this fi eld to move forward with a “high-tech strategy” – most recently thanks to a multitude of so-called innovation alliances.

An important defi ning feature of modern technology is that smaller and smaller quantities of materials are required to perform certain tasks or functions. Not only does this result in more compact and lighter products – that still perform excellently – but it is increasingly shifting the focus toward sustainable savings in raw materials and energy. This is undoubtedly and clearly a sign of technological progress, due largely to new or improved materials or production methods.

In many ways, materials are linked to humanity’s fundamental need for energy. To produce these materials, energy is needed, sometimes lots of it – as is the case with aluminum, magnesium, and titanium. The availability of materials to go into a technology – which should continue to do what it can to support society in the future – is therefore closely linked to the availability of energy. Yet things are very positive on the credit side of the material-to-energy ratio, since, of course, it is again materials that play such a central role in dictating the viability of producing and transporting energy. Also, when it comes to safety – with things like machines, airplanes, vehicles, ships, bridges, and buildings – the choice of the material is crucial, especially in terms of quality and processing. That said, one area where some development and catching up may be necessary is with the basics and techniques of recovering raw materials from used materials. Here it is worth highlighting some newgeneration material such as modern fiber composites, materials used in lithium-ion batteries, and several others. The techniques used until now to recycle working materials and raw materials are still not satisfactory enough or right for the long term.

Looking at this entire issue from a scientific angle, it is worth noting that since around the 1960s, material science and its sub-disciplines have developed at a tremendous rate and have penetrated to a substantial scientific depth as a stand-alone specialist field. Now a fundamental science that underpins many other technical disciplines, particular attention is given to the relationship between microscopic composition and the nature of materials. Materials science is particularly important for explaining universally valid principles of the extremely broad field of materials engineering, which is also undergoing rapid development. Not only are new materials being developed, ideal materials are being identified for specific purposes. Materials science taps into a large number of sub-disciplines within other sciences (physics, chemistry, mechanics, thermodynamics etc.). So to allow materials science to become a “supporting science,” a separate, underlying basis had to be identified and this came most obviously from the very microstructures of materials, i.e., their composition. The question thus posed was how atoms or molecules could be pieced together to create a solid material as required – and, based on this, how these microstructures could be positioned, due to their properties, as required, for a specific application.

It has become standard practice to make a distinction between structural and functional materials. For example, with some materials, the task is to structure things and put them together into the right composition. The focus lies in the mechanical properties of a material. This basically comes under the general header of mechanical strength. So materials have to be strong and capable of withstanding stress, safely, over time, in a variety of environments (temperatures, corrosive surroundings etc.). Functional materials have a different role to play. Here the focus lies in the totally different physical properties of a material (such as the data density offered by storage media, resistance to radiation, shape memory). Materials science has now become so well established that new specialist fields have broken off and developed into separate areas, such as nanotechnology or fracture mechanics.

Almost by default, materials science can only be fully understood and investigated by underpinning and corroborating scientific principles with the right testing and experimentation. Of the many physical, chemical, and technical testing methods used, optical approaches relating to light and electron microscopy play a central role here. Ultimately, these make it possible to systematically and comprehensively depict the aforementioned material compositions.

Sourcing, processing, and forming materials into components and machines enjoy a long and scientifically well-founded tradition, especially in Germany. Without a doubt, this has involved surviving some major economic crises. But this has not damaged materials know-how, neither in the labs and institutes of different areas of higher education, nor in the many development centers specially set up by companies. On the contrary, in some areas, activities actually became more concentrated and the discipline received a strong boost. The many Steinbeis Centers with a focus on materials were not unaffected bystanders during this process. Their services enjoy increasing demand from industry – from support with the development of new materials and material concepts, to investigating and assessing damage after a material was used incorrectly or badly produced. One such center is the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Material Development and Testing. Affiliated with Pforzheim University, after over a decade, the center is an established and trusted partner to local industry, with close-knit and lasting networks spanning many companies. The transfer center’s work revolves around three key areas: i) materials development and optimization ii) the validation, testing, and analysis of metallic materials, and iii) the optimization of materials-related production processes.


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Jost and Prof. Dr.-Ing. Gerhard Frey are joint directors of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Material Development and Testing (WEP) at Pforzheim University. As well as investigating, testing, analyzing, and developing materials, the center specializes in damage assessment

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Jost
Steinbeis Transfer Center Material Development and Testing (WEP) (Wiernsheim)

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