Issue 15
Words by

Getting materials out of the lab

17th May 2024
17 Mins

Inventing new materials is only the first step. Getting them into mass production and use is just as hard.

I’m writing these words using plastic keys, on a composite wood desk, looking at a Gorilla Glass screen. The screen is linked to a machined-aluminum computer, inside of which doped silicon switches on and off a billion times per second.

One hundred and fifty years ago, not a single one of these materials existed.

Materials are not charismatic technologies like cars or computers. Yet they enable almost every one of humanity’s technical achievements: rebar unlocked the skyscrapers of the 1920s; chemically strengthened glass delivered us smartphones; and stainless steel, not created until 1913, brought with it the clinical equipment upon which modern medicine depends.

New materials create fundamentally new human capabilities. And yet, despite university teams regularly  announcing triumphantly that they’ve created a material with seemingly magical properties like artificial muscles made out of carbon nanotubes or ‘limitless power’ from graphene, new materials-enabled human capabilities have been rare in the past 50 years.

Why is there such a gap between headlines and reality when it comes to new materials? Is there anything we can do about it?

The only way to answer those questions is to understand how a material goes from a tiny test tube sample to a commodity measured in megatons. Each step in the process requires different skills, mindsets, and resources. Each step is also governed by different incentives that make sense locally but create deadly traps for the entire process. Bypassing these traps needs systems-level solutions that take into account each step of the process – whether in policy, organizational reform, or new institutions – and unlock the progress that new materials enable.

The journey from lab to market

Inventing a new material is the beginning of a long process.

Take carbon fiber composites. You’re almost certainly familiar with these, particularly if you’ve ridden a surprisingly light bike or seen its distinctive crosshatched weave pattern on a car dashboard or phone case.

Looking at carbon fiber composites through an electron microscope, you observe strands of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, woven into mats and layered with a resin such as epoxy. Carbon fiber’s tensile strength (the amount of load it can bear under tension before it breaks) is similar to steel, but the material is much less dense. So if you care about both weight and strength – as you do when you’re designing vehicles from a supercar to a Boeing 787 – carbon fiber is the material for you.

Modern materials like these carbon fiber composites are born in laboratories. Researchers at universities or industrial research labs do test tube–scale experiments, which can produce mind-blowing results. Carbon fiber first showed great promise in 1960 when Richard Millington patented a process to create fibers made of 99 percent carbon.

However, at lab scale, materials don’t do anything. Most people wouldn’t want a rope that is a centimeter long, or a battery that lasts three minutes. Leaving the lab requires bridging many orders of magnitude: from producing less than 0.001 kilograms (one gram) per day in a lab to more than 1,000 kilograms (one tonne) per day in a factory.

You can think of lab-scale materials as the most artisanal products in the world, painstakingly handcrafted by people with advanced degrees. Like any artisanal product, lab-scale materials are expensive. Trying to mass-produce these materials by simply increasing the number of fume hoods, test tubes, and pipette wielders would make them cost billions of dollars per kilogram. After a material is invented, we need to discover cheaper ways to produce it, since price per quantity has a dramatic effect on how much it can be used.

We call this process ‘scaling’, but to me that word is frustratingly vague. It bundles together many different problems that need to be solved to decrease cost and increase yield. The three key ones are:

Consistency. A lab can declare success if a small fraction of their material has an impressive property, but a factory needs that fraction to be much higher. A more consistent yield means less waste, and a lower price.

Standardization. Figuring out how to produce a material using conventional, industry-standard equipment avoids the cost of custom tools and enables you to make more material in an easily replicable way.

Streamlining. Moving a product through a continuous manufacturing process, as opposed to applying each of the manufacturing steps to a small, static batch drastically reduces costs. Henry Ford did this with his moving assembly line, passing cars from worker to worker rather than moving workers from car to car.

Scaling requires wildly different skills and mindsets from lab work. At lab scale, you need to think creatively about precise ratios between different elements in one-off experiments. At factory scale, you need to worry about the thermodynamics and kinetics of pipes the size of a person and ovens big enough for a car. Learning to think through and debug each of these different systems is its own career path. Transitioning out of the lab almost always requires a handoff between researchers and production engineers, and as we will see, this handoff is where the trouble begins.

Pilot plants

So let’s say you’ve invented a promising new material. How do you scale it?

First, you would build or work with small pilot plants to figure out how to make the material in a way that scales and has a form factor and properties that are useful in the real world. Ideally, it’s straightforward to scale up from a pilot plant by increasing the size of tanks or the speed of conveyor belts without changing the resulting material’s properties. But often it isn’t.

In addition to figuring out how to scale a process, pilot plants are crucial for overcoming another hurdle materials face before they’re used in products: certification. Certification is a set of extensive tests in controlled environments both to uncover the new material’s failure modes and measure important properties for engineering applications: how its performance changes under pressure and temperature; how it deforms under a tension or compression; how flammable it is; and more.

Most of a material’s downstream users demand some level of certification. The engineers and lawyers at companies using a material require different levels of rigor based in large part on performance demands and the consequences of failure: military aircraft have more stringent requirements than decorative fence posts. Higher-margin applications almost always require more certifications (and thus much more cost and time to do the testing). This creates a tension for both large companies and start-ups commercializing new materials. Certification is where start-ups often run out of money while going after the high-margin applications that would justify their valuations; uncertainty about the results of certification makes companies and investors hesitant to pursue new materials in the first place. These rigorous requirements are the results of decades of collapsed bridges, exploded boilers, and crashed planes; they do increase safety, but at the cost of potential new research.

Even if you figure out certification and scaling at the pilot plant, the material it produces is not yet a viable product. At this small scale – say, 100 kilograms per batch – materials are too expensive or low volume for almost any application. As the inputs for other technologies, materials pass on scale and cost constraints. Aerogels, for example, are incredibly light and they’re such good insulators that a flame on one side of them barely heats the other side. But extraordinary as they are, they see little use because any prototype that incorporates them is prohibitively expensive.

From pilot plant to industrial factories

To produce enough of a material for it to be cost-effective, you need an industrial-scale factory.

These factories are eye-wateringly expensive: not only do you need to construct a large building fit with specialized infrastructure like high-voltage power lines, but a new material often requires custom equipment to manufacture. These difficulties are made all the worse by superfluous permitting reviews and zoning approvals.

But the high fixed costs of industrial factories can be justified through their massive production volume. A typical carbon fiber plant produces 1,500 tonnes per year. Tesla’s Gigafactory is rumored to cost at least one billion dollars and maybe as much as ten billion dollars – but will produce 37 gigawatt-hours of energy storage per year.

Building an industrial-scale factory requires money – a lot of it. To justify the expense to investors, you need to answer the questions, ‘What is your material good for?’, and more importantly, ‘Who will buy it?’

The answer is far from obvious, even for great materials: carbon fiber went through a decades-long journey before it became the star it is today. At first, manufacturers sold it as low-margin home insulation material because of its low thermal conductivity. It was key to several failed products, from turbine blades to a replacement for fiberglass. It eventually found its first iconic use case when Gay Brewer won the first annual Taiheiyo Club Masters using a golf club with a carbon fiber shaft.

The search for a cost-effective use case leaves many new materials in a chicken-and-egg situation: entrepreneurs and companies can’t justify the expense of scaling because there isn’t an obviously valuable application – but that application can’t emerge without a cost-effective material that can be experimented with.

Even applications that do seem obvious can take a long time to realize. In 1968, Rolls-Royce attempted to use carbon fiber in airplane propellers, which failed spectacularly. The propellers were extremely vulnerable to impacts – the whole project became such a boondoggle that it was a significant factor in the company’s collapse into receivership in 1971. Another 40 years would pass before the first majority–carbon fiber airplane, the Boeing 787, took flight.

One could easily imagine a world where 40 years of research and development didn’t go into getting carbon fiber to the point of flight, and instead it remained a replaceable low-margin insulating material. Researchers might wistfully talk about it the way they do nowadays about gallium arsenide, a semiconducting crystal that has some properties that are superior to silicon: a promising material that just can’t seem to find widespread adoption.

Frictions in the lab

There is a sense both inside and outside industry that bringing new materials to market has become harder and more expensive over the course of the past 50 years. While the apparent problem for scaling lies in the transition to the industrial factory, the problem actually begins in material science labs.

Scientists, mostly working in universities, have strong incentives to focus on novelty and one-off demonstrations because these can lead to publications and positive media attention. That work can be valuable, but the search for novelty alone creates mismatches with efforts to produce useful materials at scale. Essentially, the system of discovery sets up scaling for failure by not creating materials without any consideration of their ability to scale.

The drive to focus on new discoveries over improving old ones’ capacity to scale, combined with the difficulty of mimicking real-world conditions in a lab, creates initial experiments that bear little resemblance to how people use a material in the real world.

Take the development of lithium-ion battery anodes. Researchers can demonstrate exciting leaps in power density from a new anode material using a half-cell reaction that provides functionally infinite lithium. But in a real battery with finite lithium, these anodes would reduce battery lifetimes to the point of unusability.

Similarly, carbon nanotubes have incredible tensile strength for their weight, but it’s hard to make them longer than a few centimeters. This length limit comes from carbon nanotubes’ tendency to tangle and become more susceptible to impurities as they get longer. Cable makers in the real world don’t just care about strength-to-weight ratios, but also the length over which the material maintains that strength. Yet scientists can take their headline of ‘superstrong carbon nanotubes’ and move on to the next project.

It’s not just that lab experiments often fail to capture properties that matter for real applications: sometimes problematic properties emerge only at scales that are too large for lab-sized experiments to reveal. Some battery materials produce toxic by-products in the parts-per-million range – undetectable when you’re making grams at a time, but a big problem when scaled up a millionfold.

Nonrepresentative experiments and emergent properties combine with the fact that small changes in a material’s composition can have drastic effects on its scalability to make many lab materials useless for real-world applications.

Many of these scaling problems could be anticipated and potentially mitigated in the lab if researchers worked and talked more with people who would eventually scale and use their discoveries. As a friend who has worked on materials both in academia and large companies told me: ‘Academic researchers rarely venture out of their labs to discuss these challenges of scaling their research with industry. And if they do, [they] often seem to be speaking a different language than each other.’

Institutional changes have widened the gaps. Bell Labs once housed both the discovery-focused researchers and scaling-focused engineers, creating a melting pot. This dynamic has dwindled as large companies outsource R&D to start-ups and universities and silo business units even more. The sheer number of people in the industry has also caused conferences and other gatherings to become more specialized, decreasing opportunities for cultural exchange.

Problems with start-ups

With the decline of the industrial R&D lab, start-ups now bear much of the responsibility for scaling new materials. Indeed, spinning out of an academic lab and into a start-up is the most common pathway for a new material to begin its journey into the world.

Start-ups commercializing a new material face many headwinds including often-unavoidable relationships with larger companies, trade-offs between speed and profit margins, and capital constraints.

Materials start-ups often struggle to raise venture capital financing. Venture isn’t a good fit for the capital costs and timescales of the material industry: the size, scale, and expectations of venture capital funds are well-suited to invest in software and pharmaceuticals whose revenues can skyrocket once they hit the market. Venture capital also prefers high-margin businesses that can get to market quickly, but materials often face a trade-off between margins and speed: while it’s faster and cheaper to innovate on one component of a larger production line or one material in an existing product, most of the margins come from new products.

In order to get to market quickly enough to raise money, materials start-ups often partner with larger companies. The majority of material innovations aren’t standalone products, but tightly integrated pieces of a bigger system: anodes for batteries, plastic shelves in refrigerators, or the carbonized fiber filaments of Edison’s lightbulbs. Large companies have spent decades learning to build these products cheaply and well.

However, these partnerships between start-ups and large companies are fraught with gaps that can prevent a material from succeeding: secret knowledge that large companies won’t share about their requirements, massive speed mismatches between a large company’s production plans and the start-up’s runway, power dynamics, uncertainty, and low manufacturing margins that make companies hesitant to create partnerships in the first place.

Countdown to a space elevator

Given the lack of a market solution, it might be tempting to conclude that there simply isn’t much demand for new materials. To some extent, new materials are a victim of the success of material sciences. Companies and researchers have spent more than 100 years systematically working to discover, optimize, and scale new materials. Today’s materials and processes are much harder to surpass than those of the early twentieth century. When we already have something as strong and light as carbon fiber, the next material needs to be even better.

These demanding requirements create a chicken-and-egg problem. Wright’s law – the consistent decreasing production cost of a technol­ogy with the number of units built – requires time to work its magic. But new materials are expensive. Even if the material could eventually unlock amazing applications when its cost crosses a certain threshold, will it survive long enough to get there if there isn’t demand at a high price point?

You could argue that the market is scaling the materials that make sense to scale – start-ups run out of money because their material isn’t worth scaling! That’s certainly true in some cases. But as we’ve seen, nobody really knows how many applications a new material will have until long after it’s commercialized, making it hard to do a rational expected value calculation.

The long road from the lab to the material world might make the future of new materials seem bleak.

One reason for optimism is that new materials might already be on the horizon. There is a shockingly consistent timescale for materials to become useful beyond their initial niches. It took roughly 50 years between Roger Bacon’s discovery in 1958 and the flight of the first majority–carbon fiber airplane in 2009. The first lithium-ion battery was created by NASA in 1965, but most people didn’t start interacting with them until the mid 2000s. The properties of pure carbon nanotubes weren’t isolated until 1991. If there is indeed a 40- to 50-year timescale for lab-based materials to be useful in high-impact applications, we don’t need to despair about a carbon nanotube space elevator being overdue until somewhere around 2040.

There’s a lot of room for improvement in how new materials get into the world. We can increase funding for the material sciences, focused specifically on scaling up technologies which will have widespread benefits like better batteries. We can use new research institutions like ARIA to make grants or create advance market commitments for materials with certain properties so that manufacturers can have an initial market until more use cases are found. We might also take steps to bring back industrial R&D labs like Bell Labs, perhaps by strengthening intellectual property protections so that companies are incentivized to fund speculative research. 

There are also new kinds of material that might be able to subvert chunks of the process and the associated frictions. Most materials are bulk mixtures that we extrude or cast, so there’s a lot of design space left for hybrid materials. Biology-inspired materials are still in their infancy: materials with hierarchical structures like bones, the ability to self-repair like skin, or properties that can be tuned as they’re being manufactured, like spider silk. We don’t yet know how to scale many of these technologies, but one can never rule out dealing with bottlenecks by simply end-running around them.

Harnessing new materials is a core engine of progress. At some time in the past, someone had to invent and scale every material we use – from semiconductors to spandex. Over time, friction has built up in that engine. Of course, these problems are not unique to materials – many foundational physical technologies face the same scaling and time-to-adoption hurdles that our innovation institutions have become worse at tackling over time.

The only way we can reverse that trend is by understanding the complexity hidden within terms like basic research or scaling, and by giving authority to the people who understand the actual work, who can see where the frictions are in these connections, and might be able to do something about it.

Thanks to Virginia Postrel, Jerry Neumann, Evan Miyazono, Dustin Gilmer, Austin Vernon, Tim Malkovich, and Aimee Rose for discussions and feedback on this essay.

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