We think of materials as having certain properties—ceramic is brittle, glass can break, metal is heavy. 3D nanomaterials could flip those assumptions on their head. “Ceramics do not have to be brittle, a material’s color could change on demand, and a metallic material could be as light as a feather—all due to engineered 3D nanostructures,” says Carlos Portela, 30. Such materials have so far been made only in microscopic amounts in the lab, but Portela has developed a process that allows him to create 3D nanomaterials you can hold in your hand. Such materials could help address a variety of engineering challenges, he says, since they have properties that no existing material could ever attain.
The clothing industry makes roughly 100 billion garments per year, and 30% are never purchased. Beth Esponnette, 34, asked if there was a way to eliminate that waste by making clothes on demand. The resulting company, Unspun, uses existing 3D scanning software as well as software developed in-house to take that scan and create a perfect pattern to weave a garment. Now she’s developing what she calls a 3D weaving machine—a 3D printer that uses yarn instead of polymers or metals. Rather than making fabric and then cutting and stitching it, her method goes straight from yarn to the final product. “This innovation makes it possible for the clothing industry to have zero waste,” Esponnette says.
When doctors implant anything into a patient’s body, there’s a risk that the immune system will reject it. To reduce or even eliminate that risk, Jia Liu, 34, has developed flexible nanoelectronics with physical and chemical properties that mimic biological tissue. One of his designs, a stretchable mesh, could be implanted in the brain to allow scientists to safely track electrical activity from the same neurons for years, Liu says. And there are other possibilities too, he adds: “When integrated with developing tissues such as organoids, it can grow together with the developing tissue, continuously monitoring the tissue-wide activities at single-cell resolution.”
Wearable devices can help monitor people’s health as they go about their day, but existing ones are too rigid to maintain good skin contact. Naoji Matsuhisa, 32, has developed a stretchy diode made of thin rubber sheets that operates at frequencies as high as 13.56 megahertz, a frequency used for electronic wireless communication devices; previous stretchable semiconductor devices maxed out around 100 hertz. Whereas other stretchy circuits often involved embedding brittle electrical components into softer materials, Matsuhisa is making the components themselves flexible.
Newborns, especially those born prematurely, often need intensive medical monitoring. That usually means sticking electrodes and sensors to the baby and connecting them via long wires to base units fixed to the wall. Steve Xu, 34, has created soft, flexible, skin-safe patches that can monitor a baby’s vital signs wirelessly. Not only does Xu’s technology reduce skin injuries from the adhesives—which can be life-threatening for newborns—but it removes the wires and enables skin-to-skin contact with the parents. “While this technology is useful across the entire continuum of care from cardiology to remote patient monitoring, we’re focused on premature neonates,” he says.
We expect adhesives to work on things like paper and wood and stone, but when something is wet and pliant—like human tissue—suddenly tape and glue don’t work so great. Hyunwoo Yuk, 33, has made it his goal to fix that. Taking cues from barnacles, spiderwebs, and other sticky things found in nature, he’s developed bioadhesives that allow for near-instant repair of tissues and organs. “We have shown that we can seal severe bleeding and leaks in many organs within 10 seconds without preparation or extra steps, almost resembling the convenience of sealing leaky pipes with duct tape,” Yuk says.