In R&D labs around the world, engineers are busy at work mixing metals and fibers, bending physics and stretching possibilities to create the materials of the future.
These tungsten and titanium composites, carbon and glass fibers, ceramics and PCNs are invading the market at an ever-quickening pace across every industry, transforming our basic understanding material functionality and of our engineering limits.
To put this in perspective, Visiongain analysts recently estimated that the composite market is on pace to reach $10.3 billion this year in the aerospace industry alone this year.
The rapid pace of this growth has led some to call this an era of "engineers gone wild."
But to Kennametal Inc. (IW 500/327) CEO, Carlos Cardoso, this renewed focus on innovation signifies something much greater than engineering showmanship.
"I would take a different approach," he said during an interview at IMTS 2012. "What I see is that humans are becoming more sensitive to the environment, more accountable, more responsible. And that is driving this new level of innovation."
Composites for a Better World
To those outside the industry, the relationship between stronger, lighter materials and environmental stewardship may not be clear. But to Cardoso, the two are a perfect match.
"It all begins with efficiency," he explained. "Any kind of engine -- jet engine or combustion engine -- over the last five years, it has become more efficient."
The key to that efficiency gain and the decreased pollution tolls it represents, he said, is really just a matter of designing engines that can run hotter.
"The pollution from older engines comes from unburned fuels in the exhaust," he explained. "So the better the combustion, the less pollution it puts into the air."
Hotter burning engines, of course, require new materials that can withstand the higher temperatures without compromising structural integrity. And that leads to the development of new composites.
"It is just the natural evolution of materials," he said.
A Proven Impact
Whether used in the frame or engines, incorporating composite materials in place of steel has had a proven impact on fuel efficiency and pollution abatement.
With the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any other materials, composites can provide many of the same advantages of steel -- and many beyond it -- at less than 25% of its weight. This means that cars built with composite material frames with no other modifications to the engine would require about 2% less fuel than steel-framed designs. This, of course, would add to significant resource savings throughout the life of the vehicle.
Taking those materials into the engines as well, can significantly increase that result.
"If you look at engines 20 years ago, the German engines were a lot more efficient -- they lasted longer, the burned more efficiently," Cardoso explained. "One of the main reasons was that the piston only had a little bit of slack to the sleeve while others had a ton of slack. That means that oil leaked into the chamber and instead of burning just fuel, you were burning oil as well, so we were emitting more into the ozone."
"Today," he said, "that is no longer acceptable."
And that, Cardoso noted, is the real goal of the recent rash of material innovations.
With the new materials, he explained, today's engines contain parts that fit together better than ever before, resulting in a wave of engines, motors and vehicles that run better, burn more efficiently and emit less.
"All of this started with pollution abatement, with fuel efficiency," Cardoso said. "Humans are just being more responsible with the environment and more sensitive to it. That is driving the industry."