A much better interaction between basic science and materials technology has developed. One important contribution of basic sciences to materials development has been the development of analytic instrumentation, including synchrotron light, for the study of materials. For centuries, the approach to materials research was systematic empiricism because there was no other way. Then there was movement to educated empiricism in which some general rules drawn from the basic sciences were useful.

The market has also been a strong influence on the rate at which new materials have been discovered. Sometimes the market demands a new product, which technologists must create. At other times, the technology is available, but there is no market for its applications. Optical fibers are a typical illustration of this interaction between technology push and market pull. There was a market need for optical fibers because of the crowding of the broadcast bands for radio communication and the lack of space underground in large cities to lay telephone wires. Because of improved scientific understanding of the light absorption process in solid materials, people realized that the absorption coefficient of light in a glassy material was almost entirely due to extrinsic problems, such as impurities. These could, at least in theory, be eliminated. Basic science research had also shown that intrinsic absorption of this silica was many orders of magnitude lower than that of the glass that was available only 15 or 20 years ago.

The technology with which to purify silica was available, and it could be transferred with few changes from the semiconductor industry, which had already developed chemical vapor deposition techniques. In addition, many ancillary components were available for building an optical fiber communication system, components such as the semiconductor laser, detectors, and signal treatments. All of these conditions combined to produce unexpectedly rapid development of new materials used for fiber optical communications. In fact, in this case, optical fiber has become an industrial product in an astonishingly short time.

Whereas materials technologies once developed independently, they now develop through continuous interaction between basic science and materials research, and this trend will continue. The interaction among technologies has become the biggest engine of technological development during the past few years.

The second question concerns the length of time required for new materials to achieve broad applications. For example, carbon fibers are used in the aeronautics industry and in the leisure industry for tennis rackets and fishing rods. However, it will take a long time before carbon fibers take the place of many automobile components.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon. Most of the new materials of interest are not costly, because they are based on plentiful elements of the periodic table. For example, new magnetic materials are based on iron and boron, which are very inexpensive. Neodymium is one of the second



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement