Imperial College London

Future materials take centre stage at World Economic Forum in Davos


Davos - home of the World Economic Forum

The role of materials science in driving the 'fourth industrial revolution' was showcased by a group of Imperial academics in Davos this week.

Imperial College London’s IdeasLab presentations at the World Economic Forum showed the gathering of global government, industry and NGO leaders how advances in materials science are transforming industries from energy-efficient production and rapid prototyping to nanorobotics and invisibility cloaks.

Molecular hybrids promise new material classes where we can mix-and-match properties

– Professor Natalie Stingelin

Professor of Organic Functional Materials

This year’s World Economic Forum’s theme is the ‘fourth industrial revolution’: the set of technological changes that will enable almost anyone to invent new products and services quickly and cheaply thanks to the interplay of fields like materials science, nanotechnology, brain research, 3D printing, mobile networks and big data.   

Imperial’s President Alice Gast published a blog with the World Economic Forum about how fundamental research is at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution. Professor Gast also spoke on a panel about business-academic collaboration and competition.

Smart materials

Mary Ryan

Professor Mary Ryan

During the Davos events, Mary Ryan, Professor of Materials Science and Nanotechnology, presented on the future of thermal energy and heat management. Professor Ryan explained how new smart and nanostructured materials are making it possible to embed heat capture technologies into the design of power plants, aircraft and industrial systems, saving money and reducing environmental impact. 

Natalie Stingelin, Professor of Organic Functional Materials, spoke about new methods for bending light with plastics, which are enabling more efficient production on a larger scale, and better integration of new technologies and materials into product pipelines. She explained how a new class of engineered multilayer polymers that can manipulate light with extreme precision, promising perfectly transparent energy-efficient glazing, better solar cells and new components for optical computing. 

Talking in Davos, Professor Stingelin said: “Molecular hybrids promise new material classes where we can mix-and-match properties and yet yield materials that can still be processed in a straightforward fashion. Think about how easy it is to manufacture plastic bottles. What if we could do the same with plastic chips?” 

Communications revolution

Professor Neil Alford, Vice Dean for Research in the Faculty of Engineering, spoke about his work in pioneering the first maser – the microwave equivalent of a laser – that operates at room temperature. His discovery promises cost-effective and more powerful electronic components for telecoms and healthcare.

The Star Trek Tricorder could soon be with us.

– Professor Neil Alford

Vice Dean for Research, Faculty of Engineering

Professor Alford spoke about the challenges of communicating across vast distances, for example between Mars and Earth where “the signal is interrupted by noise en route. The critical step is to take a weak signal and to amplify it. This is a vulnerable step–it’s very easy to add noise.  But what if we could avoid adding noise? This is the promise of masers. A maser can take a very weak microwave signal and amplify it massively – without adding noise. With a massive magnet and a massive refrigerator, masers were just too difficult to engineer, too bulky and far too expensive for everyday use. But suppose you could make a maser work without cooling or magnetic fields?  This is what we discovered in my lab. We took an organic molecule, a failed attempt to build a solar cell, and re-engineered it.  The result: a room-temperature maser made from an engineered crystal… Already we have a version that could one day be integrated into electronic circuitry in future communications devices… The Star Trek Tricorder could soon be with us.”

Intelligent machines

Materials physicist Professor Robin Grimes, who also serves as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explained how computer simulations of novel materials can greatly reduce the time-scales, risk and cost of product development – a potentially key contributor to the fourth industrial revolution. Professor Grimes also joined a panel discussing how to accelerate scientific breakthroughs to address society’s biggest challenges. 

Maja Pantic

Professor Maja Pantic

Beyond the materials science sessions, Maja Pantic, Professor of Affective and Behavioural Computing, presented in an IdeasLab panel on “building an intelligent machine”, covering machines that can read human emotions and the rise of social machines. 

Gareth Mitchell, lecturer in broadcast communication at Imperial, moderated panels on “the promise and peril of omnipresent sensors”, and the “violent universe” of black holes and supernovae. He also joined Professor Mary Ryan in a discussion on the relationship between science and science fiction. 


Andrew Scheuber

Andrew Scheuber
Communications Division

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