Materials Matter | June 30, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 26 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 26 | pp. 21-23
Issue Date: June 30, 2008

Materials Matter

Quirky library bridges the gap between matter and design
Department: Business
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Treasure Hunt
The Material ConneXion libraries display a wide range of materials for use in consumer products, architecture, and interiors
Credit: Material ConneXion
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Treasure Hunt
The Material ConneXion libraries display a wide range of materials for use in consumer products, architecture, and interiors
Credit: Material ConneXion
See Through
LiTraCon cement blocks and tiles contain glass fibers that run the length of the block, transmitting light through the body and emitting it at the end.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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See Through
LiTraCon cement blocks and tiles contain glass fibers that run the length of the block, transmitting light through the body and emitting it at the end.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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COCONA

To create the activated carbon on this woven polymer fabric, coconut shells were pyrolyzed at 600-900 °C in an inert atmosphere. Activated carbon has a very high surface area that allows it to absorb odors and act as an ultraviolet light blocker. The absorptive effects can be enhanced with further chemical treatment. Used in outdoor apparel. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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COCONA

To create the activated carbon on this woven polymer fabric, coconut shells were pyrolyzed at 600-900 °C in an inert atmosphere. Activated carbon has a very high surface area that allows it to absorb odors and act as an ultraviolet light blocker. The absorptive effects can be enhanced with further chemical treatment. Used in outdoor apparel. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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PAPERFOAM

Paperfoam is a molded, foamed paper pulp that can be used as packaging and as filler. The molded foam is 100% paper, has a smooth surface, and generates no dust. When used as packaging it precludes the need for plastic bags around the product. Paperfoam is recyclable with other paper products and is biodegradable. It be molded into an almost unlimited range of patterns and shapes and may be colored. Applications include packaging for delicate components and as decorative packaging. Made in the Netherlands.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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PAPERFOAM

Paperfoam is a molded, foamed paper pulp that can be used as packaging and as filler. The molded foam is 100% paper, has a smooth surface, and generates no dust. When used as packaging it precludes the need for plastic bags around the product. Paperfoam is recyclable with other paper products and is biodegradable. It be molded into an almost unlimited range of patterns and shapes and may be colored. Applications include packaging for delicate components and as decorative packaging. Made in the Netherlands.
Credit: Material ConneXion
KOLLOMAT

Kollomat is a leather-fiber-reinforced biopolymer. The leather is chopped and shredded into fiber. Chemical agents are added that remove up to 80% of the moisture and retard aging. A special process is used to compound the leather, resin, color, and additives into moldable pellets. Parts made from Kollomat have a warm, leatherlike feel and good acoustic and vibration dampening properties. The polymer can be combined with other polymers and may be used in place of other injection molded pieces. Made in Germany.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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KOLLOMAT

Kollomat is a leather-fiber-reinforced biopolymer. The leather is chopped and shredded into fiber. Chemical agents are added that remove up to 80% of the moisture and retard aging. A special process is used to compound the leather, resin, color, and additives into moldable pellets. Parts made from Kollomat have a warm, leatherlike feel and good acoustic and vibration dampening properties. The polymer can be combined with other polymers and may be used in place of other injection molded pieces. Made in Germany.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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BIO-GLASS

These fused glass surfaces are made of 100% postconsumer recycled material. The slabs are fully vitrified, creating a translucent effect, with a dense top surface to resist staining. The glass is available in white, green, brown, and blue. It can be made with a polished, honed, or "natural" surface and is resistant to acids and bases. Applications include counter surfaces, backsplashes, and decorative wall and floor accents. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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BIO-GLASS

These fused glass surfaces are made of 100% postconsumer recycled material. The slabs are fully vitrified, creating a translucent effect, with a dense top surface to resist staining. The glass is available in white, green, brown, and blue. It can be made with a polished, honed, or "natural" surface and is resistant to acids and bases. Applications include counter surfaces, backsplashes, and decorative wall and floor accents. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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100 YEAR PILLOW

Buckwheat hulls—a by-product of the food industry, are used as a natural filler for pillows. The hulls are cleaned, dried, and mixed with herbs and wood additives to prevent insects and mites. They are durable and do not conduct or reflect heat as much as synthetic fills. The polygonal shape of the hulls allows air pockets to form. As the pockets are warmed by the body, they warm the pillow without creating hot spots. Made in Thailand.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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100 YEAR PILLOW

Buckwheat hulls—a by-product of the food industry, are used as a natural filler for pillows. The hulls are cleaned, dried, and mixed with herbs and wood additives to prevent insects and mites. They are durable and do not conduct or reflect heat as much as synthetic fills. The polygonal shape of the hulls allows air pockets to form. As the pockets are warmed by the body, they warm the pillow without creating hot spots. Made in Thailand.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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PARAGON

IM 1010 Potato starch granules have been formulated for injection molding using conventional molding and extrusion machines. The polymer is 100% biodegradable and compostable and lends itself to making foils and films for food packaging. Due to the polymer's slight sensitivity to moisture, it is necessary to sandwich it between two biodegradable nonstarch plastics. Current applications are for food packaging and dog treats. Made in the Netherlands.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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PARAGON

IM 1010 Potato starch granules have been formulated for injection molding using conventional molding and extrusion machines. The polymer is 100% biodegradable and compostable and lends itself to making foils and films for food packaging. Due to the polymer's slight sensitivity to moisture, it is necessary to sandwich it between two biodegradable nonstarch plastics. Current applications are for food packaging and dog treats. Made in the Netherlands.
Credit: Material ConneXion
COLORED TITANIUM

Anodizing provides dye- and pigment-free coloring for titanium. The colors are formed by the refraction of light off of and through the thin titanium oxide layer that is produced with applied electricity. Colors include gold, purple, dark blue, light blue, clear, yellow, pink, and chartreuse green. The colors are voltage-dependent: As the voltage increases, the surface area decreases, resulting in different colors. Special processing imparts fingerprint resistance and prevents yellowing. Applications include outdoor monuments, bicycling and golfing parts, marine components, decorative applications, jewelry, housewares, and architectural elements. Made in Japan.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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COLORED TITANIUM

Anodizing provides dye- and pigment-free coloring for titanium. The colors are formed by the refraction of light off of and through the thin titanium oxide layer that is produced with applied electricity. Colors include gold, purple, dark blue, light blue, clear, yellow, pink, and chartreuse green. The colors are voltage-dependent: As the voltage increases, the surface area decreases, resulting in different colors. Special processing imparts fingerprint resistance and prevents yellowing. Applications include outdoor monuments, bicycling and golfing parts, marine components, decorative applications, jewelry, housewares, and architectural elements. Made in Japan.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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MAGNECOTE

This "paper," comprising a gloss-coated paper backed with a magnetic slurry, is the thinnest magnetic material available. It is flexible and tear-proof, it will not delaminate, and it may be printed on using a range of processes. Available in three strengths of magnet, the paper may be perforated, die-cut, and laminated. It is approved for use as a mailer by the U.S. Postal Service. The paper has been used for magazine advertisements, on bathroom stalls, and in promotional pieces to be affixed to refrigerators. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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MAGNECOTE

This "paper," comprising a gloss-coated paper backed with a magnetic slurry, is the thinnest magnetic material available. It is flexible and tear-proof, it will not delaminate, and it may be printed on using a range of processes. Available in three strengths of magnet, the paper may be perforated, die-cut, and laminated. It is approved for use as a mailer by the U.S. Postal Service. The paper has been used for magazine advertisements, on bathroom stalls, and in promotional pieces to be affixed to refrigerators. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
BULL

Thin concrete and wool form these decorative, three-dimensionally molded wall coverings with sound-absorbing properties. Only 30 mm thick, the panels are considered environmentally friendly and recyclable. The felt is available in various colors. Applications are for interior wall panels, room dividers, and acoustic elements. Made in Sweden.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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BULL

Thin concrete and wool form these decorative, three-dimensionally molded wall coverings with sound-absorbing properties. Only 30 mm thick, the panels are considered environmentally friendly and recyclable. The felt is available in various colors. Applications are for interior wall panels, room dividers, and acoustic elements. Made in Sweden.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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ELECTROPUFF

Recycled nylon carpet fibers are treated to make them touch sensitive and usable as an on/off switch. The fibers are flame resistant, antimicrobial, and stain resistant, and their conductive property does not wear out over time. They are currently used in light dimmers but may be used for any on/off switch in dry environments. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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ELECTROPUFF

Recycled nylon carpet fibers are treated to make them touch sensitive and usable as an on/off switch. The fibers are flame resistant, antimicrobial, and stain resistant, and their conductive property does not wear out over time. They are currently used in light dimmers but may be used for any on/off switch in dry environments. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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ACTIVE PROTECTION SYSTEM

This flexible textile stiffens on impact. Intended for protective apparel, the fabric works by incorporating a dilatant—a material, similar to cornstarch in water, in which the viscosity increases with the rate of sheer. It can be sewn directly into garments and accessories to shield the wearer against high-energy impacts. It consists of a three-dimensional spacer textile treated with a special silicone coating. Material application is carefully controlled so the fabric retains good breathability and flexibility. The sheet is typically 4.8 mm thick, has a density of 2.2 kg/m2, and can withstand a force of up to 28 kN. Applications are in protective apparel, geotextiles, and architectural fabrics. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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ACTIVE PROTECTION SYSTEM

This flexible textile stiffens on impact. Intended for protective apparel, the fabric works by incorporating a dilatant—a material, similar to cornstarch in water, in which the viscosity increases with the rate of sheer. It can be sewn directly into garments and accessories to shield the wearer against high-energy impacts. It consists of a three-dimensional spacer textile treated with a special silicone coating. Material application is carefully controlled so the fabric retains good breathability and flexibility. The sheet is typically 4.8 mm thick, has a density of 2.2 kg/m2, and can withstand a force of up to 28 kN. Applications are in protective apparel, geotextiles, and architectural fabrics. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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BIOCOMPOSITE

These biocomposite panels are fiberboard alternatives manufactured from waste agricultural fibers and soy-based resin. The waste fibers may be hemp, flax, ramie, or others. A proprietary natural additive creates cross-linking of the soy and results in a stiffer resin than was previously possible. The composites may be recycled, incinerated, or composted after use. Potential applications are as an alternative to particleboard in skateboards and cabinetry. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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BIOCOMPOSITE

These biocomposite panels are fiberboard alternatives manufactured from waste agricultural fibers and soy-based resin. The waste fibers may be hemp, flax, ramie, or others. A proprietary natural additive creates cross-linking of the soy and results in a stiffer resin than was previously possible. The composites may be recycled, incinerated, or composted after use. Potential applications are as an alternative to particleboard in skateboards and cabinetry. Made in the U.S.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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LITRACON

LiTraCon cement blocks and tiles contain glass fibers that run the length of the block, transmitting light through the body and emitting it at the end. The number and design (but not the length) of the fibers is customizable, as is the size and shape of the blocks. The fibers can vary in size from 2 μm to 2 mm and may be either glass or plastic. The concrete has not yet been tested for load bearing or general construction. Applications are for any non-load-bearing wall or as a design piece. Made in Hungary.
Credit: Material ConneXion
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LITRACON

LiTraCon cement blocks and tiles contain glass fibers that run the length of the block, transmitting light through the body and emitting it at the end. The number and design (but not the length) of the fibers is customizable, as is the size and shape of the blocks. The fibers can vary in size from 2 μm to 2 mm and may be either glass or plastic. The concrete has not yet been tested for load bearing or general construction. Applications are for any non-load-bearing wall or as a design piece. Made in Hungary.
Credit: Material ConneXion

On the second floor of a nondescript building in Manhattan on West 25th Street resides an unusual library. The collection, like in many libraries, is informative and often delightful, but it is also furry, squishy, bumpy, chunky, shiny, and twisty.

The library is owned and run by Material ConneXion and is the physical embodiment of the company's materials know-how. The firm was founded in 1997 by Egyptian-born furniture designer George M. Beylerian and colleague Michele Caniato on the premise that innovative design requires innovative materials, and vice versa. They thought that someone needed to play matchmaker.

"Materials equal design. You can't have an incredible design without the material that can make it happen," says Caniato, who is now Material ConneXion's president. Originally, the target customers were architects and interior designers, but from the beginning Caniato found himself fielding requests from consumer products companies as well.

Although its headquarters is in New York City, Material ConneXion also has libraries in Bangkok, Thailand; Cologne, Germany; Milan, Italy; and Daegu, South Korea. More than 500 corporate customers pay for access to the New York City library and an associated online database. They include professionals who design consumer products, packaging, architecture, interiors, and apparel. They are all looking for specialized, inspiring, or just better materials to give their concept a competitive advantage. For an annual fee, members get the run of an on-site archive of 4,500 samples, many of which have properties that can fire designers' imaginations.

Some 1,500 of those samples are displayed on tiles, called material tabulas, shelved according to material type: polymer, glass, ceramic, carbon-based, cement-based, metal, and natural. The names of the samples' manufacturers are available only to library subscribers. The library obtains between 40 and 50 new materials a month, and there is no fee to the material suppliers to be included.

In addition to library access, Material ConneXion offers users more personalized consulting services. "It's like a gym where you can go in and use the equipment, or you can get a personal trainer," explains senior research scientist Cynthia Tyler. She uses her background in chemical engineering to sort out all the ways a new material could enhance a particular product. "When we talk to suppliers, we're talking chemistry," Tyler says.

For example, one client wanted to replace the polyvinyl chloride in an inflatable consumer product with something that had a better environmental profile. But the material also had to be puncture resistant and impermeable. Tyler's team recommended an engineered plastic that more than fit the bill and didn't require the company to change its manufacturing process.

Tyler has seen a major change in what her clients are seeking. "Two years ago, the first question we would get is 'What does it cost?' Now it's 'How green is it?' " she says. She has also encountered company representatives who want to find materials that look "natural," even if they don't benefit the environment in any way—an attitude that she calls greenwashing. On the other hand, "It's really exciting when we work with a company that's willing to go all the way," Tyler says.

The hospitality industry is looking to increase its use of environmentally friendly materials, according to Shay Lam, head interior designer at architecture firm Perkins Eastman. "We were probably the last people to cross that threshold. We still love our stone and leather, but what we're hearing from our clients is that they are all going for green building certification, and they want environmentally aware materials." Material ConneXion has helped him locate translucent concrete, light-transmitting countertops, and reclaimed red oak for his clients' glamorous interiors.

In order to perform the yenta-like service of matching needy product designers with their ideal material, staffers at Material ConneXion actively seek out manufacturers with substances that, as the firm describes it, are intelligent, ecological, and innovative. They find materials in specialized departments within big companies such as Evonik's Cyro Industries unit and Clariant's Masterbatches division, as well as in small technology-based start-ups and university spin-offs.

One small company, e2e Materials, in Ithaca, N.Y., is a spin-off from Cornell University. Material ConneXion displays the company's biodegradable substitute for formaldehyde-containing particleboard. The composite is made with renewable fibers such as bamboo, kenaf, or flax and held together with a proprietary soy-based protein resin. E2e's technology is based on the work of Anil Netravali, a professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell. So far, the composite has been used in office furniture and skateboards.

One of Material ConneXion's newest finds is a natural wood finish called PolyWhey, made by Vermont Natural Coatings. As the name implies, the product takes advantage of an abundant waste from cheese making to create a protein-based bonding agent.

Once they've found their quarry—an innovative new material—the experts at Material ConneXion have to explain it to their designer-customers. "It's the difference between left brain and right brain—that's our strength. We understand the technology and distill it into useful information for designers," Tyler says. "Designers don't want to look at a table of mechanical properties."

Not surprisingly, many of the materials that find their way into the library claim to be environmentally friendly. The scientists at Material ConneXion verify green claims by examining third-party certifications such as those for sustainable forestry from the Forest Stewardship Council or indoor air quality from the Greenguard Environmental Institute.

On top of "single trait" qualifications, Tyler looks for manufacturers that go the extra mile by doing a full life-cycle analysis of their product. She is partial to the Cradle to Cradle Certification developed by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC). The Cradle to Cradle scheme audits all the materials in a product, down to 100 ppm, and advocates that manufacturers should be responsible for the material at the end of its useful life.

Last year, Material ConneXion formed a partnership with MBDC to promote the use of its life-cycle analysis to manufacturers. Currently, the library features 40 Cradle to Cradle-certified materials. Among them are several types of textiles and an engineered stone used for countertops.

Not all of the materials in the library achieve such high levels of Earth-friendliness. But regardless of their ultimate goal, product designers are always faced with trade-offs when they choose materials. Finding innovative materials often means they can get more of the qualities they want without the sacrifices they are used to.

The classic sacrifices with environmentally friendly materials are cost, attractiveness, and durability. The library contains a number of materials that purportedly break those restraints. In the glass aisle, for instance, Bio-Glass is made from 100% postconsumer recycled material. The translucent slabs are stain resistant and strong enough for use as counter surfaces and floor accents.

To reduce costs, designers can find materials that are either recycled or left over from other processes. The 100-Year Pillow is filled with buckwheat hulls rather than down or synthetic fill. The natural substitute is extremely lightweight, durable, and comfortable, producer Good Guy Group states. Similarly, the Cocona finish for polymer yarns and textiles is made with coconut-based activated carbon. Cocona manufacturer TrapTek claims that treated fabrics are odor absorbing and protect against ultraviolet radiation.

Another option for the environmentally conscious designer is to do more with less. An interior designer might choose sound-absorbing panels from Sweden that are made with thin slabs of concrete attached to wool felt. The layers are only 30 mm thick and are recyclable.

Materials that combine seemingly opposing characteristics are common in the library. Designers can find soft finishes that don't easily scratch, concrete that transmits light, and polymers and fabrics that conduct electricity.

Many clients visit the library hoping that inspiration will strike. Paul Katz is a senior design engineer at Smart Design, an industrial design firm that works with clients including Hewlett-Packard and kitchen tools maker Oxo International. He says his company has been a member of the library for many years and uses it regularly.

"Being able to have a hands-on feel for materials or see how they've been applied is very valuable. When you see how it's used, it gives you ideas," Katz reports. Conversely, "if you see it isolated from use, you get other ideas. What often happens is that we go there with the idea of looking for something, but we're not really sure what. Then we see three or four options we didn't know existed," he says.

On one occasion Katz recalls finding a material that literally illuminated a new design possibility for a consumer electronic product. "We found something that was translucent when you shine a light through it, and we liked how it looked."

Today's consumer products ask a lot of materials. "We need to have very sophisticated materials, highly engineered and multifunctional," Caniato says. Designers, he adds, have become more knowledgeable about the environmental qualities of what goes into their products. Tyler agrees. "Designers, chemists, and engineers need to think about how we can reinvent what we're doing to make effective change," she says.

 
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