Smart, modern and composite materials

The differences between smart, modern and composite materials

What is a modern material?

A modern material is a material that has been developed through the invention of new or improved processes to improve the properties of the material, eg to make them stronger, faster, lighter and tougher.

Many modern materials are developed for specialist applications; however, some have become available for general use.

Concrete, aluminium and steel are all commonly used modern materials, but more recent additions include materials that have changed the way we manufacture and use products.

Graphene is a single carbon layer material which is hypothetically 100 times stronger than steel. It is hypothetical because we are yet to manufacture it in large enough quantities to prove this. In theory, it could provide body armour that is bulletproof, invisible and almost weightless.

If the whole of Wembley Stadium was covered in a layer of graphene, it would be almost invisible and be unbreakable, yet it could all be lifted it with one finger.

A close-up view of a graphene structure that looks like an atomic-scale honeycomb lattice.
The structure of graphene

Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) use the light-modulating properties of liquid crystals to display an image. The liquid crystals are between a liquid and solid state. When charge is applied to each liquid crystal, the shape changes to either block light or let light through. This ensures text or images display on the LCD.

LCDs require a backlight to work and many modern devices now use organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) instead, which allows devices to be thinner and lighter. OLEDs are more expensive as each pixel is its own light, but they allow for thinner panels and better colour and contrast.

Nanomaterials are tiny particles of 1 to 100 nanometres (nm) that can be used in thin films or coatings such as the oleophobic coatings on smartphone screens that repel greasy fingerprints, or hydrophobic materials that repel water.

A close-up image of water droplets on a dark waterproof fabric.
Hydrophobic material

Breathable fabrics are designed to allow body moisture to evaporate away from the body, through the use of a breathable membrane laminated between layers of fabric, whilst still remaining waterproof. The membrane has microscopic holes, big enough to let body moisture through but too small for rain, and it is often used in tents and waterproof walking gear. Examples include Gore-Tex, Permatex and SympaTex.

A breathable membrane and insulation sandwiched between the inside and outside linings of a breathable fabric - perspiration can exit the material but ran rebounds on the membrane.The laminated structure of an example breathable fabric