Image courtesy of Rob Thompson

Inspiration: The Secrets of Wonder Materials

Nicolas Paulhac on May 3 2018 | Stories, Design

Inspiration is the basis for every artistic creation. Whether you are a game or film artist, a designer of any type - chances are that you have a large data bank of image references, for ideas and inspiration.

We, at Allegorithmic, love material design of any kind, and we strongly believe that all artists can get inspiration from neighbors universes. This is why we regularly gather new references in the Instagram Mattershots, for all artists to use.

Today, we want to introduce to you Rob Thompson, creative material specialist, and creator of Make Material agency. His specialty is the research and analysis of materials trends for manufacturing and design in order to help the product creation process. He aims to inspire: check it out!

Courtesy of Rob Thompson

Material Inspiration for Design

From nanotechnology to biomimicry and industrial processes to age-old crafts, materials and manufacturing provide a never-ending source of design inspiration. There are many individuals, institutions and companies doing incredible things with material technology; and in doing so they are changing the look and feel of the world around us. Once familiar, the boundaries between different categories of materials are becoming blurred, as nature and the manmade merge.

Materials are not just the matter that goes into the things we consume; it is the stuff that inspires design, driving the creation of new objects and experiences. New materials continually emerge, not only from laboratories but also through reinterpretation: while materials previously confined to industrial or high-performance applications are becoming more accessible, others are being reinvented through clever design and novel production techniques. From the real to ethereal, interaction with materials is shaping the next generation of design.

New materials are developed in response to specific technical demands of industries such as automotive, aerospace and defense. It can take some time for these developments to become affordable and practical for application in everyday products. Whether an age-old tradition or invention at the beginning of its journey, each material offers a unique solution. This rich pallet of inspiration will continue to grow as we encounter new problems that require the optimum material solution.

Courtesy of Rob Thompson
Courtesy of Rob Thompson
Courtesy of Rob Thompson

MAKE MATERIAL is an agency I set up to translate trends into tangible and meaningful materials for design. With so many options available, it is vital that designers are looking in the right direction, and focused on the important emerging trends. I have written several books that explore materials and manufacturing technology—from sustainability to aerospace composites and one-offs to mass-production. This has given me unprecedented insight into the inner workings of a huge range of industries.

1. The Wonder of Aerogel

The intricate nanoporous structure — It would take around 100 football pitches to cover the internal surface area of just 1 kg — of silica aerogel scatters light within the translucent material, creating a unique hazy appearance, which has been likened to blue smoke frozen as a solid.

Lumira aerogel, produced by Cabot Corporation in granular form, is the most highly insulating translucent insulation. The British School of Brussels features a Kalwall curtain wall produced using Lumira aerogel panels to provide balanced, natural daylight with superior thermal and solar control.

Unlike down and feather, aerogel does not require loft to keep you warm, which means much less bulk for equivalent performance. The Milan Aero jacket and trousers by Peak Performance feature Aerotherm aerogel insulation, which they claim is 2–8 times more effective than traditional thermal insulation. However, it comes at a price: aerogel lined apparel is currently around twice as expensive.

The nanoporous structure is too small to allow for heat to transfer through the entrapped air by convection (unlike conventional foam and fibre materials), resulting in unrivalled thermal insulation for a structural material. Half the thickness would provide the same level of insulation as cork, Rockwool or polyurethane foam; and at up to 99.8% air, a single pane would provide the same thermal insulation as 66 panes of glass.


What differentiates nanomaterials from conventional types is the method of fabrication: nanomaterials are formed at the molecular scale.

Aerogels are fabricated using the sol-gel process. The operation begins by mixing the necessary liquid ingredients. The molecules contained within combine to form nanometer-sized particles.

Held in suspension (a stage known as ‘sol’), the particles are encouraged to form a gel (semi-solid) network, such as with the use of a catalyst. The three-dimensional structure of the gel and very low density are maintained by removing the liquid by supercritical drying (conversion of the liquid to gas without evaporation). Conventional drying would cause the structure to collapse because the surface tension created during drying – as it passes the liquid-gas boundary – would cause failure.

Building materials from the bottom up allows for the composition and structure to be tailored at every scale, creating many opportunities for design and engineering.

How a casual bet between colleagues led to a revolution in low-density materials

A class of nanomaterials — primarily based on silica — that includes some of the lightest and finest insulating materials to have been discovered. What differentiates nanomaterials from conventional types is the method of fabrication: nanomaterials are formed at the molecular scale.

Despite the name, aerogel is solid, stiff and dry. The almost fractal nanoporous structure creates a unique translucency, which coupled with its incredible lightness, results in a truly ethereal material that feels like no other.

Aerogel was discovered by the American scientist and chemical engineer Samuel Kistler. Believed to have been the result of a bet between colleagues, Kistler published his findings in Nature, 1931, unveiling the world’s lightest solid with unusual physical properties. The first useful application came at CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics) in Geneva during the 1980s to detect fast subatomic particles.

Monsanto Corporation was the first to commercialize silica aerogels and built a plant dedicated to their manufacture in the 1940s. However, it wasn’t until the sol-gel process – relatively less expensive method of production – was pioneered in France during 1970s that the potential of aerogel was rediscovered. The first useful application came at CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics) in Geneva during the 1980s to detect fast subatomic particles. Commercial spin-offs continually emerge, inspired by the use of aerogel in the most extreme applications including NASA’s Mars Path under Rover and Stardust mission.

2. The Wonder of Biorubber

Yulex biorubber produced from guayule has been commercialized through a co-branded wetsuit product line with Patagonia, bringing a sustainably sourced wetsuit to the action sports market for the first time.

Biorubber is extracted from plants, such as the guayule, as opposed to the hevea tree (chief source of natural rubber). Whereas the hevea tree thrives in tropical climates, rubber-yielding plants can be cultivated in arid or temperate climates. The guayule is a tough desert shrub that does not compete against food or fibre crops, and requires less water and pesticides than other commercial crops. Now that the plant genetics, processing technology and material properties have been solved, it is just a matter of scaling up production.

Plant-based biorubber has none of the sensitizing antigenic proteins found in rubber from the hevea and so is considered a safe alternative for people with latex allergies. By-products (only 5% of the plant is latex) are returned to nature in a closed-loop system.


The domestication process – selective breeding practices are as old as farming itself – has created a range of crop varieties with more uniform traits than their wild ancestors. They are less genetically diverse and more productive.

This process has not produced rubber-yielding plants able to compete with the productivity and low cost of hevea rubber tree plantations. The breakthrough for biorubber came in recent years as the price of gene sequencing technology has dropped. This technique allows researchers to modify rubber-yielding plants much more quickly than conventional breeding programs, cutting out years of trials and error. By using new tools that provide more specific information about plant genes, such as DNA sequencing and molecular markers, plant breeders can help guide decisions about which parents to use and offspring to select in the next generation. This process is much faster than domestication and increases the uniformity of valuable traits (such as resistance to pests) and the productivity of the crop even further.

One potential source of biorubber that has seen a great deal of scrutiny recently is the guayule. Universities, laboratories, and private collections were scoured to boost the genetic material for breeding programs. The challenge is getting the plant to produce enough latex for it to be commercially viable. And as a direct result of the work that has been undertaken recently, it is believed that this shrub has the potential to be as productive per m2 as the mighty hevea tree.

How guayule-based biorubber could upset the hevea rubber monopoly

By combining the latest DNA technology with modern farming practices, it is feasible to produce natural rubber from plants grown outside the tropics. Low prices have killed earlier attempts to produce latex from plants. However, this trend is being reversed by the rising price of oil and risks associated with of an over-reliance on rubber tree plantations.

Ever since the decline in natural rubber production during the First and Second World War, there has been an interest in finding an alternative source to the hevea tree plantations of Southeast Asia.

A great deal of work has gone into the development of synthetic alternatives to natural rubber. Many different types have emerged – silicone, neoprene and nitrile rubber to name just a few – that have some desirable properties. Derived from petroleum, they are non-renewable and their price is affected by fluctuations in global oil trading.

Biorubber derived from plants is renewable and has the potential to provide a direct replacement for natural rubber. Many successful initiatives have been announced in recent years, and in particular, those focused on developing the guayule shrub as a source. This hardy little desert plant, which is indigenous to Mexico and the American Southwest, holds great potential.

A US-based consortium including Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., Yulex, Arizona State University, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service recently carried out a large-scale research project that set out to breed a plant that could yield enough latex to make it a commercially viable crop, and they succeeded.

3. The Wonder of Dichroic Film

Dichroic film produces a myriad of reflected colours depending on the viewing angle. It is constructed from multiple layers of incredibly thin film laminated as a single sheet. Each layer reflects some of the light, causing a tangle of colour.

In nature and manmade materials iridescent colour is the result of light interference (structural colour). Unlike pigment-based colour, structural colour will never fade. The colour appears to shift when viewed at different angles, transitioning through the colour spectrum.

The NOVA Flatiron Holiday Installation in New York was created by SOFTlab, 2015. The interior of the structure is clad with 3M dichroic film, creating a shimmering kaleidoscope for passing pedestrians.


The original double slit experiment, performed by the scientist and physician Thomas Young in 1800s, revealed how light travels as waves. In the experiment, light is passed through two parallel slits in a surface, which splits the waves into two. The waves continue and, much like water ripples, combine into a single wave as they propagate outwards. The difference in wavelength, caused by passing through the separate slits, means that when the two waves combine they interfere.

The interference is either constructive or destructive: where they overlap harmoniously there will be greater displacement and where they are anti-phase the waves oppose one another.

This explains how sunlight (white light) is converted into vivid colours on the surface of dichroic film. Interference is caused by light reflecting off two surfaces separated by a distance comparable to its wavelength, such as a thin film (i.e thin-film interference). The reflected light will be the complementary colour of the wavelength that has been removed through destructive interference. Thus, if the blue wavelength is removed then the reflected colour will appear yellow.

Inspired by nature: how ripples of light are transformed into shockwaves of colour

Like a peacock’s shimmering feathers, morpho butterfly’s wings or oil floating on water, iridescence is created by the interference of lightwaves reflected from its surface. A flexible and durable film, it allows designers to achieve a kaleidoscopic finish without having to pay the very high price of colour-shifting plastic or glass.

The natural beauty of colour has evolved over millennia, shaped by its power to help camouflage, warn, dazzle and attract. Its appearance depends on the viewer, lighting conditions and, perhaps most importantly, phenomenon that created it.

Colour is the result of pigmentation (reflection and absorption), scattering (caused by particles typically smaller than the wavelengths of visible colour) and interference. Pigmentation and scattering produce a constant colour no matter the angle of view. Interference colour, on the other hand, results in a more dramatic effect. Even though the lighting conditions stay the same – most optical signals in nature depend on sunlight – the colour changes depending on the viewer’s position. For example, a peacock’s feathers appear iridescent, shifting through colours depending on the angle. This is as a result of interference between lightwaves reflected off the micro-textured surface of the feather. Certain beetles exhibit iridescence. In this case, a multilayered nanoscale structure is responsible for causing the interference – something that has been discovered on fossils dating back millennia.

The iridescent quality of dichroic film is the result of thin-film interference. Light reflected from the upper and lower surfaces of the film – similar to light reflected from micro-textured and nanostructured surfaces – combine with dramatic effect. Lightwaves are reinforced or cancelled, resulting in a spectrum of vivid colours.

The effect is not limited to appearances. Films that separate visible light from infrared light (heat is produced as longer wavelengths than visible light) are used as hot and cold mirrors, such as for removing unwanted energy from a light emitting source (hot mirror) or reflecting visible light while allowing heat to pass through (cold mirror).

Courtesy of Rob Thompson

New and innovative materials provide a fascinating insight into what the future of manufacturing might look like. Take a peek into that future on Rob Thompson's Instagram. You can also learn more on Rob's website.

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