MATERIALS ARE SO IMPORTANT for society that we classify the various eras in the development of mankind by the kind of materials used; for example, we commonly refer to the Stone, Copper, Bronze, Iron, and Steel Ages. Only 120 years ago we entered the Steel Age; all the materials we now call new, such as aluminum, have come into being since that time.
New materials are discovered and introduced practically every day. In 1900, aluminum was still a specialty product. Plastics were not unknown; celluloid and bakelite were discovered at about that time, but their use was extremely limited. Celluloid was initially introduced as a substitute for ivory for billiard balls, and this was its main use for 20 years. Today, a comprehensive list of materials would include at least 500 entries, ranging from structural materials to conductors.
Although new materials appear every day, a long period of time elapses after their initial introduction and specialized application, which require only small quantities of the materials, before they become economically important materials in tonnage and value. Obviously, when materials are introduced for large-scale application, their influence on industry and society is enormous.
The sequence of events from introduction to large-scale use of new materials raises three questions that can be addressed first in a general, almost philosophical way and then examined further by looking specifically at the new superconducting materials. The first question is, Why have new materials been discovered so quickly during the past few decades, and will this trend continue? Will we continue to invent new types of materials at the same rate? The second question is, Why does it take a long time for materials to be introduced in all phases of industry? Why are they often limited to special applications for extended periods? The third question, of course, is, How can new materials really change industry and society when they finally reach the broad applications stage?
The answer to the first question is that new materials will continue their rapid trajectory of discovery and limited application for the following reasons:
This paper is adapted from the transcripts of the Sixth Convocation of the Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences.