15 Minutes Smarter - Episode 1: Not Immaterial » The MacDiarmid Institute
15 Minutes Smarter - Episode 1: Not Immaterial

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15 Minutes Smarter - Episode 1: Not Immaterial

In the first episode of 15 Minutes Smarter, Jono and Claire discuss the importance of materials since the start of civilisation, how materials science became a thing and how it is evolving to be its best self.

July 17, 2020

[00:00:00] Jono Falconer
Hey, everybody, thanks for tuning in to the first episode of the 15 Minutes Smarter podcast, a podcast where you are going to learn about a lot of cool materials science stuff that's going to make you smarter.
[00:00:12] Claire Concannon
Yeah, I'm excited.
[00:00:13] Jono Falconer
Over a 15 minute time period.
[00:00:15] Claire Concannon
15 Minutes Smarter, makes no sense, but carry on.
[00:00:18] Jono Falconer
I'm Dr Jonathan Falconer. I have a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry and I'm a Teaching Fellow in Pharmacology at the University of Otago, and my co-host is Dr Clare Concannon.
[00:00:29] Claire Concannon
Yup. I have a PhD biochemistry and I work now in science communication in the Otago Museum.
[00:00:35] Jono Falconer
The 15 Minutes Smarter podcast is brought to you by the MacDiarmid Institute that does a lot of cool materials science research in New Zealand, and our first episode is going to cover what materials science is and where it came from.
[00:00:51] Claire Concannon
Yeah, and I guess there are many types of scientific knowledge today, like, if you think about it...Back in the day, way back, you know, there was probably just like SCIENCE, you know, this is all of this is all that we know about science.
[00:01:07] Jono Falconer
Yeah, well, if you are the first person, then all of what you know would be all of mankind's knowledge.
[00:01:15] Claire Concannon
Yeah, it would be great. You'd be like, "I know the entire breadth of mankind scientific knowledge... I learnt it yesterday". (Laughs).
[00:01:21] Jono Falconer
The red fruits taste good. That's all there is.
[00:01:26] Claire Concannon
[00:01:27] Jono Falconer
And then things got a little bit more complicated, you know, but still, I mean, like 2000 years ago in ancient Greece, they knew a decent amount of stuff. You could probably still become a doctor in like two months.
[00:01:39] Claire Concannon
[00:01:39] Jono Falconer
Because that's just all there was to know about medicine.
[00:01:42] Claire Concannon
I mean, your lifespan is shorter, so maybe you just need to get that done.
[00:01:45] Jono Falconer
It's just all compressed together.
[00:01:46] Claire Concannon
The PhD has expanded as our lifespans have expanded.
[00:01:50] Jono Falconer
[00:01:50] Claire Concannon
But yeah, I guess early days it was kind of philosophy and it was mixed in with myth and religion. And then people started to make observations and do kind of logical experiments and engage in that process of science that we were talking about. And as they did that, we started to get the different branches of science. So about 16th century, we started to kind of see like the big three, you know: physics, chemistry, biology. And I suppose physics would have come from maths and astronomy and optics and mechanics and, you know, all united in geometry, and chemistry probably came from alchemy.
[00:02:33] Jono Falconer
Yeah, it did, people uh trying to make gold out of things that were not gold to get rich. And I don't believe it worked.
[00:02:42] Claire Concannon
I mean, it's a bold frontier, right? If you're going to try something, you'd be like, "Hey, I'm just going to go make some gold. It's going to be great." (Laughs). But yeah, I think um from that um trying to make matter turn into gold. There is a few people who started carefully recording their experiments and observations, and that became the science of chemistry. And then biology, I guess biology is one of those ones where, you know, from very early days, humans are studying the animals around them and starting to.
[00:03:16] Jono Falconer
Agriculture would be biology.
[00:03:18] Claire Concannon
Yeah. Engage in farming practices and things like that. Um so, yeah, we've got we've got those big three. But I mean, now obviously there's a huge range of different science knowledge topic and themes that we have.
[00:03:32] Jono Falconer
[00:03:32] Claire Concannon
You know, you can't just get go like "I know physics". (Laughs).
[00:03:37] Jono Falconer
Yeah. And I think some of those fields blend together because ah the lines between fields aren't super well defined. So the difference between physics and chemistry, I like to think of it as if we're talking about the physics of atoms. There are equations that can describe how atoms work, but those equations only work if your atom has one proton. So you can describe one element in the periodic table.
[00:04:08] Claire Concannon
Yeah, ok.
[00:04:08] Jono Falconer
So it's not that useful. So chemistry allows us to describe how all of the other elements work and how molecules work.
[00:04:16] Claire Concannon
Can you tell the Jono is a chemist? (Laughs). So much shade on physics, "it's not that useful."
[00:04:22] Jono Falconer
No, physics. Physics is very useful. I mean...
[00:04:29] Claire Concannon
(Laughs) I'm a biologist because that is in fact the most difficult of all of the scientific knowledge is to try and grasp.
[00:04:39] Jono Falconer
Because math is not very hard?
[00:04:43] Claire Concannon
(Laughs). Biological systems are complex, my friend. You know, you need to be prepared to dive in and not be able to control absolutely everything and still carefully design a really good experiment. That'll get your results.
[00:04:56] Jono Falconer
That's true. Similar to how physics couldn't describe large molecules. Chemistry also can't describe animals because animals are too complicated and there's just too many molecules in an animal to track how it works. But if we look at very, very small parts of animals, if you look at individual cells, we can actually include chemistry in
some of how cells work, and that's called biochemistry.
[00:05:22] Claire Concannon
Yep, biochemistry. Got my PhD in that.
[00:05:26] Jono Falconer
(Laughs).Nice. Name drop. So the field we're talking about today, material science sort of well, it's actually a field that blends science and engineering together.
[00:05:39] Claire Concannon
Mm hmm.
[00:05:40] Jono Falconer
And engineering is basically a way of using scientific knowledge to build stuff. So engineering is more practical to try and get stuff done.
[00:05:52] Claire Concannon
Yeah. And like material. We say materials science and the name materials science is kind of given to this branch in the 1940's and 50's when people were kind of trying to innovate for the war and then the Cold War. But materials science and actually also wars have been around for all time.
[00:06:14] Jono Falconer
[00:06:14] Claire Concannon
When you say there, like about the engineering aspect and the scientific aspect, everything is made of materials and people have been trying to problem solve materials from, you know, back all ages of civilization.
[00:06:29] Jono Falconer
Yeah, I think ah a lot of materials science, unfortunately, was explored to try and beat people in war. So ah like initially people fought with sticks and rocks and bone and then people discovered copper, that was a little bit harder, and tin. And then people figured out and actually this is, you know, somewhat complicated materials science, people blended copper and tin together to get bronze, and that was harder than anything anyone had before. And then people were able to purify iron and that was way stronger than bronze. And then the people who had iron stuff won all the battles.
[00:07:09] Claire Concannon
Yeah, well, and also, you know, the hunts and things like that. But like, you know, hence we get the names Bronze Age.
[00:07:16] Jono Falconer
[00:07:16] Claire Concannon
And Iron Age. Materials science was so cool even at that time. The people were naming actual tracks of years after it.
[00:07:25] Jono Falconer
Yeah, it's been around a long time and had a huge impact, but it's only recently that we've defined it.
[00:07:30] Claire Concannon
Yeah. You know, I love a good definition. Jono, what is a material?
[00:07:36] Jono Falconer
A material is everything, basically. It's matter. So gas, water or skin, a table. But materials science, we're usually talking about solid materials.
[00:07:51] Claire Concannon
[00:07:51] Jono Falconer
So, like metals, wood, plastic, but also things that are complicated, like really small metal particles like nanoparticles or maybe a solar cell or like a rain jacket that stops you from getting wet. That would be materials science on how to make that fabric.
[00:08:10] Claire Concannon
Yeah, OK, so the science of everything. (Laughs). No wonder it's so cool. When you said nanoparticles there, what did you mean by that?
[00:08:20] Jono Falconer
A nanoparticle is a material that you can't see. It's about a thousand times smaller than what you could see than like a human hair. So they're super small and nanoparticles can have different material properties than large materials. So if you had a big piece of silver that you held in your hand, it won't really dissolve easily if you put it in water. But if you broke that silver up and made it into silver nanoparticles, those silver nanoparticles could actually just dissolve in water, so their properties can
be super different.
[00:09:00] Claire Concannon
[00:09:01] Jono Falconer
And it leads to a lot of cool applications.
[00:09:02] Claire Concannon
Because scientists can then use that in like different properties of these nanoparticles to make different materials made out of tiny, tiny pieces.
[00:09:12] Jono Falconer
Yeah, I used to make nanoparticles of these things called Metal Organic Frameworks with Carla Meledandri at the University of Otago, which are basically spongey materials that have little holes throughout them that can absorb gases. And we were trying to make them really, really small so that we could try and trap those gases faster than big material.
[00:09:34] Claire Concannon
How does that help? What do you mean trap gases?
[00:09:37] Jono Falconer
Um, we were trying to trap carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to try...
[00:09:40] Claire Concannon
That would help.
[00:09:42] Jono Falconer
Solve global warming.
[00:09:43] Claire Concannon
Yeah. Did you figure it out?
[00:09:45] Jono Falconer
It's ongoing.
[00:09:48] Claire Concannon
(Laughs). That's a tagline of most scientific research, isn't it?
[00:09:50] Jono Falconer
[00:09:53] Claire Concannon
I guess the one of the key things about materials science is about getting the right material for the job.
[00:10:00] Jono Falconer
[00:10:01] Claire Concannon
So, like, you know, if you're if you're using the silver nanoparticles, it's because they have this special property that you want to make use of.
[00:10:09] Jono Falconer
[00:10:10] Claire Concannon
And I think this idea of materials science, of finding the best material has been just spread across all different areas. You know, like there's biological applications of this like like hip implants or drug delivery. I've seen this like cool tendon and wound repair that's using different bioactive materials. Weren't you telling me, Jono, about some like heart patch thing that came from materials science?
[00:10:42] Jono Falconer
Yeah, an old lab that I used to work with in Utah did research with these things called cell sheets, where they would basically grow a layer of stem cells and then they could turn those stem cells into different types of tissues. So they turned the stem cells into heart cells. And then you could actually put this this cell sheet almost like a Band-Aid on someone's heart. And the cell sheet would actually beat like a heart in the dish with electrical impulse.
[00:11:08] Claire Concannon
That's so amazing. That just blows my mind.
[00:11:11] Jono Falconer
Yeah, it's not bad, but even cooler material science allowed us to skateboard.
[00:11:20] Claire Concannon
[00:11:20] Jono Falconer
So skateboards used to have metal wheels and those couldn't really work because they couldn't grip the road, so you just slide all over the place. So then they developed clay wheels, which were a little bit better, but they would sort of fall apart and then if you hit like a stick in the road or a pebble, it would just stop your skateboard and you'd fall off. So then this guy who worked at a plastics factory designed polyurethane wheels, which were sticky. So they gripped the road really well and they could also roll over twigs and pebbles more easily. And it basically allowed skateboarding to become what it was. So if you ride a skateboard, thank materials science.
[00:12:00] Claire Concannon
Surely the peak of materials science accomplishment. Why do they even continue?
[00:12:05] Jono Falconer
I don't know. They should have quit while they were ahead.
[00:12:06] Claire Concannon
(Laughs). They were helping people with damaged heart cell walls.
[00:12:14] Jono Falconer
Well, I guess if we if we want to have a world that we can skateboard in, we do have some issues that ah that we need to, that we need to address, that materials science can help us work on.
[00:12:25] Claire Concannon
Yeah, true. Like sustainability is a big area that materials science can help us. You know, one of the things that researchers in the MacDiarmid Institute are working on is this collaboration to develop flexible solar panels.
[00:12:40] Jono Falconer
[00:12:41] Claire Concannon
Have you seen these? They're so cool. So the like the scientists in New Zealand are working on the dyes that are in these solar panels so that they can absorb the light and then convert to energy. But like you see, people have made pictures of what they imagine that you could use these solar panels for.
[00:12:58] Jono Falconer
Like I could wear a solar panel shirt and then plug it into an electric skateboard. Then I could just, like. (Laughs).
[00:13:05] Claire Concannon
Dream big, Jono, dream big. What about a cape? (Laughs).
[00:13:09] Jono Falconer
That would be cooler. Where can I buy this?
[00:13:16] Claire Concannon
So material science is not yet peaked for skateboarding. (Laughs). Skate cape is on the horizon. But, yeah...
[00:13:26] Jono Falconer
We need to patent that.
[00:13:28] Claire Concannon
I mean, your issue there would be... (Laughs). You'd only be able to go up hills if the sun was there, right?
[00:13:38] Jono Falconer
That's true. Unless we had a battery.
[00:13:39] Claire Concannon
Unless we had a battery. I've led you nicely to the battery problem and this is something that materials science can help us address as well. So like, there's a lot of talk in terms of a shift to electric cars, but that will require more lithium batteries, which will require extracting more lithium from the earth. There's not a huge amount of lithium in the earth.
[00:14:03] Jono Falconer
[00:14:03] Claire Concannon
And then at the end of the batteries lifespan, it's not really easy to recycle. And also the lithium ion batteries also use cobalt, which is very rare. And so this is one of the things again, there's a lab in Wellington they're working on trying to figure out if they could substitute the lithium with aluminum, and then you've got aluminum batteries.
[00:14:25] Jono Falconer
And we have a lot of aluminum. It's actually the third most common element on Earth.
[00:14:32] Claire Concannon
Yeah, and a lot easier to recycle as well.
[00:14:34] Jono Falconer
[00:14:35] Claire Concannon
And I think this shows the progression of materials science. You know, we've said it's been around forever. People are picking the best material, whether it's to like make tools or go hunting or, you know, go to war. But now, not only are we looking for the best material to do the job that we want done, but we're also thinking about where is that material sourced from, what is the economic and the environmental cost to get that material? And we're thinking full circle, you know, at the end of its life cycle, where does that material go? How can it be broken down, reused or recycled?
[00:15:14] Jono Falconer
Most importantly, the skate cape.
[00:15:16] Claire Concannon
We'll get right on that patent, Jono. Well, I guess that's our 15 minutes up. Um what are we going to talk about next time, Jono?
[00:15:23] Jono Falconer
We are going to talk about alternative energy and specifically, solar power with Justin Hodgkiss who is the Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute.
[00:15:35] Claire Concannon
Cool. 15 Minutes Smarter is brought to you by MacDiarmid Institute and if our listeners wanted to find out more about the material science research happening right here in New Zealand, where can they go?
[00:15:47] Jono Falconer
M A C D I A R M I D dot A C dot N Z
[00:15:47] Claire Concannon
(Laughs). Beautiful. Thanks for listening!