Materials science is everywhere but not many people realise that it is a discipline of its own. It's the science of 'stuff' - what things are made of and how you make them. It covers everything from alloys, polymers, ceramics, composites, and any other material you can imagine, and their properties: their chemical and physical composition, their electronic and magnetic properties, their strength and the mechanisms by which they fail. The study of materials science can be used to extract desirable characteristics or benefits, and to design materials to achieve particular properties or effects. Materials science can reach into almost every aspect of our everyday lives - it affects real world, tangible things and that's what makes it an appealing sector to work in.
However simple, most products incorporate elements of material choice within them - someone has made a choice as to what a product is made from, whether in its entirety or the individual components within it. With this in mind, there can be much to gain for businesses who can develop higher performance, lower cost materials. Researchers and developers are constantly looking for ways to make materials cheaper or lighter, or to enhance some material property, as well as extracting new performance capabilities in order to gain competitive and commercial advantages. The developments in car batteries illustrate this perfectly - the search for lighter batteries with higher capacity and faster charging times is highly materials driven.
A key development area these days is a move towards more sustainability-focused elements of materials science. How we can extract materials in more ecologically-conscious ways, how materials can be developed with recycling in mind and how we might apply the knowledge from materials science projects to other aspects of engineering are all key factors.
Materials science is very much an interdisciplinary field combining aspects of chemistry, physics, biology and engineering. Businesses, both large and small, can have teams dedicated to the science behind composition and properties of materials within their offering, and the team might draw on expertise from many technical fields.
Whilst established manufacturing businesses continue to focus on new and improved means of extracting new properties from materials, we are also seeing growth in startups in the sector who are focusing on early stage development of materials - that is the process for creating materials. These companies might supply or license materials and prcoesses, to other companies to incorporate them into their existing manufacturing programme.
Keltie’s materials science clients are looking to safeguard their intellectual property rights in their materials science innovation. This might be in a material compositon or structure, (an alloy, arrangement of materials within a battery or a glass coating substance for example), or it might be a method of making the material or fabricating a device, or it might be the equipment used in that process or the process itself. In many cases it will be a mixture of all of these.
Some clients may have specific applications and uses in mind for the materials: part of the invention may be how a material is used for a particular situation. Other clients may have developed a material with impressive properties but may not have a particualr commericalisation in mind yet. Each project is unique and dependent upon the commercial activities of the client, what they wish to protect from their competitors and the impact of any downstream applications of their technology. We work with our clients to determine the most important elements in each case to plan and execute an IP portfolio strategy that offers the maximum protection for their rights as creators.
One of the most engaging aspects of working in the materials science sector is being able to work on site with clients and being able to see the processes in action: visiting the labs and manufacturing sites where new materials are created and produced, and feeling the buzz of the development facilities. Seeing our clients' end products out and about brings our involvement in the process to life. It is hugely rewarding to work with such highly intelligent people and see a creation which you have played a part in developing make it onto shelves.
Working with innovators in R&D labs takes me back to my research days, and being able to continue my involvement in materials development is exciting. My technical background means that I can discuss projects with materials inventors on a technical level, forging a deeper understanding of the components or processes and ensuring that the scope of protection in a patent is technically sound and covers essential aspects of detail.
Sometimes, we are able to broaden peoples’ thinking on the application of the materials they develop, and can give them IP that is even more powerful and valuable than they had ever expected. A client’s material innovation could underpin many different types of technology - sometimes technologies they had never thought about. Using our skills and expertise, and drawing on our breadth of talent within the team, we are able to help you think bigger if it is appropriate for you. A client may, for example, be using their material in a battery but the fact that the material has high conductivity properties may mean it is also useful in other electrical applications. If we are able to craft a scope of protection that coudl apply to any area of technology, you may have an even more valuable right. It is often the case that by working together to formulate a wide-reaching IP strategy, we can stimulate and inspire creativity and research to explore new solutions to different problems. Our firm is built upon the relationships we have with our clients. The stronger our relationships and the better connections we forge with inventors, the more we are able to explore new opportunities for commercial success.
As with many other industries, a major development in materials science will likely be the further integration of AI and machine learning. There is already exciting work taking place in this field, but we expect to see this really take off in the next few years.
Materials informatics - using huge data banks of materials science information - will play a more major role as we enhance our ability to use machine learning to predict the properties of materials based upon a list of requirements, exclusions and desired outputs. This will dramatically speed up R&D processes and make the search for new methods of deploying materials more efficient. Whilst these systems are not perfect and rely upon the quality of inputted data, they may uncover novel properties of materials which inventors had not previously considered. We are seeing an upward trend in patent applications in material informatics, which will likely lead to more innovation in other fields and unlock new capbilities in the end products which incorporate new or modified materials.
It is likely that at some stage, there will be diminishing returns in the further development of existing technologies or materials. For example, it will get harder and harder to make a battery any lighter, and working harder for minor incremental change may eventually make little commercial sense. But of course, the rate of innovation will likely mean that a new or emerging technology will supersede an old technologies prior to the point of negligible return. Batteries will be redundant technology one day, and at some point we will see a fundamental shift in our approach to energy storage challenges.
Wherever materials development takes us, the key for us at Keltie is to keep asking questions. The constant evolution, development and innovation within materials science makes it a really engaging sector to work in - we work with clients at the cutting edge of materials innovation, and that will never stop being exciting!
25.01.20215 minutes with Alistair Gay: working at Keltie.
Alistair Gay, Partner at the firm who joined over twenty years ago, shares his thoughts on what makes Keltie special.