6 Sci-Fi Materials That Are Quietly Shaping Your Future

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by Pauli Poisuo

Anyone who has spent any time reading the science pages can see that we truly, finally, live in The Future. Amazing materials and fantastic structures are invented on a daily basis, which makes a true rogue ask the really important question: “When the hell do we get to play with all this cool new stuff?”

Pretty soon, actually.

 
 

Hagfish Slime Is Basically A Wonder Substance

Hagfish slime is a strange mucus that the hagfish, an animal sometimes affectionately referred to as “slime snake,” secretes as self defense. It expands to roughly 10,000 times its normal volume, is non-sticky, and so soft that it feels almost incorporeal. It’s also really strong, and the hagfish can even use it to fend off actual sharks. Sharks.

But we’re not here to talk about what gross, bodily secretions can do to benefit the hagfish -- we’re here to talk about the way they can benefit you. Hagfish slime is not unlike spider webbing: Gross and creepy when encountered in nature, but rad as hell when science gets its grubby mitts on it. In the case of the humble slime snake -- which, incidentally, will never stop sounding wrong in our heads -- the superstrong, flexible, tightly-packed substance in its skin secretions can be used to produce heavy-duty fabric that’s also friendlier on the environment. Don’t try to jump in the shark pool wearing a sweater made from this stuff, though -- that particular method of defense is probably better left to the hagfish.

Pixabay

Pixabay

Not advised.

According to researchers, the fabrics derived from the slime may eventually replace nylon and other petroleum-based materials, while being more lightweight and much, much stronger. How much stronger? Kevlar stronger. Science is looking into applications such as safety helmets, protective vests, and even airbags and other car parts. Of course, those are actually from the less impressive end of the hagfish slime spectrum. While you’re reading these words with your face-eyes, the U.S. Navy is giddily researching the substance to create materials they hope to use for fighting fires, preventing underwater attacks, and even straight up stopping missiles. And these are just some basic applications -- the more creative scientists are using hagfish slime to create hydrogels that could see uses from disposable diapers to farmland irrigation, and even looking into the material’s properties for tissue engineering and replacing damaged tendons.

So, who knows? In a decade or two, you might test out your brand new hagfish slime Achilles tendon by taking a dive in a bulletproof hagfish slime scuba suit, while blasting hagfish slime anti-shark spray at the great white that’s trying to get too friendly.

Plastic That Heals Itself

Wait, what is freaking plastic doing on this list? For anyone even remotely ecologically minded, it’s pretty much the devil of materials. There’s a massive vortex of our discarded sandwich wrappers floating in the Pacific that’s big enough to qualify as a final boss in a Final Fantasy game. How can anyone make this stuff anything close to cool?

Well, as it turns out, there’s a self-repairing polymer plastic that’s a lot less easy to discard than your average single-serving ketchup bottle, because this particular plastic heals like skin.

Pixabay

Pixabay

Which … takes time. But still.

The brainchild of researchers from Clemson University, South Carolina, the self-healing technique works like spaghetti strands intertwining after getting torn apart, and can be applied to a variety of materials. Plastic is obviously the go-to piece, but the same science can work with paints, and even more importantly, coatings for cell phone screens. Imagine living in a world where that cracked phone screen you’re reading this article on right now just straight up repairs itself. Also, they’re saying that this invention is inching pretty close to mass production. Isn’t this the best world?

Of course, it’s not like we’re on the brink of mass-producing a straight up Wolverine of plastics. Surely, it’s going to be like 3D printers, and require tons of materials to produce anything worth of importance and ... wait, it won’t? MIT has already developed a polymer that can repair itself by snatching carbon from the air for building blocks in the chemical reaction it uses for the process? OK, never mind. We keep forgetting that every given project has multiple great minds working on it, for truly, we live in The Future.

A Bacteria That Is Ready To Invade ... The Cracks In Your Driveway

Let’s get one thing out of the way: BacillaFilla is not a catchy name. It sounds like something a rapper would call himself because he secretly wants his career to bomb so he can follow his lifelong dream of becoming an accountant. Or like a Batman villain that a writer would create because he just found out he’s about to get fired and he wants to see how deep he can sink the franchise before he goes.

In reality, however, it’s something much stranger. BacillaFilla (seriously?) is a “transmaterial” that’s essentially a swath of microbes that have been engineered to fix concrete. If that doesn’t immediately drop your jaw to the floor, it’s probably because you haven’t stubbed your toe in the cracks in your driveway, or because you’ve never seen a construction worker’s expression when he finds out that a concrete block he just installed is cracked. Cracks are not just annoying, they make the whole block structurally dangerous, and BacillaFilla (ugh) can fix that crap.

Pixabay

Pixabay

And it’s way more effective than Silly Putty.

The process, which was developed by a multidisciplinary team at Newcastle University, is at its core a vastly more complex take on spray-on glue. First, you spray some of the Bac- material near the fissure you want to fix. This coats the area with engineered bacteria that will proceed to take over the crack, and eventually, fill it out with bacterial spores. Once the crack is filled out, the substance finally hardens into a natural binding agent called levan adhesive -- which is roughly the same strength and pH as the concrete itself.

Then it drops a dope-ass album, fades into the shadows, and does your taxes next year.

All Sorts Of Amazing Glasses

All right, we’re by no means experts on the concept of glass, but according to our understanding, there are exactly four types: The one you use in windows and lenses, the one you use in mirrors, the one you use in one-way mirrors, and the bulletproof one in the cars that agents and rich people drive, in movies.

Well, it turns out, there’s more.

One-way ballistic glass sounds like something James Bond would shoot the villain through while quipping one-liners about “adequate protection.” However, it’s very much real, and people with the need for that kind of thing can actually buy it. Once you get your mind out of the obvious movie firefights, there’s actually a host of perfectly valid, everyday uses for ballistic glass that can take a lot of punishment from one side and roughly none from the other: Think safety glass that we can still easily break from the other side in case of an emergency, or more likely, by simply leaning on it when we inevitably forget that it’s only super durable on one side. Still, that’s on us, not the glass.

Pixabay

Pixabay

Also, punching.

Speaking of durability, there’s also liquid glass, which is somehow even weirder than it sounds. This nanotech glass coating can be applied to soft and hard surfaces alike, is extremely damage resistant, and withstands extreme heat and cold. If the product proves commercially viable, we could essentially be looking at a future where anything -- your car, your pants, your carpet, anything -- could potentially be coated in a super-thin layer of silicon material that’s basically ballistic glass, only with amazing flexibility. It would be impossible to see with the naked eye, since a coating would be 500 times thinner than a human hair, but it would be there, and kicking all available asses. It probably won’t save you from a gunshot, but even at such a thin layer, it’s more than enough to protect the surface from oil, moisture, dirt and bacteria.

Metal Foam Is Basically Magic

Aside from rock, metal is easily the most hardcore solid substance in existence. After all, how many musical genres does wood have named after it? Now, there’s an even neater variation of metal: metallic foam. It’s basically porous metal where tiny gas pockets comprise a huge portion of the volume. This system makes the metal extremely heat-resistant, which comes in handy in all sorts of neat heat management systems. The foam’s also ultra-light, and its sturdiness doesn’t suffer too much from all the foaminess, either. In fact, here’s some foam completely obliterating a bullet.

Another, even cooler version of the foam is a composite structure where tiny, hollow metal balls are bonded together, creating a substance that can be squeezed into a fraction of its original size while still maintaining structural integrity.

 
 

The main thing about metal foams is the fact that they’re as durable as, well, metal, while lightweight with an element of foamy squishiness. Can you imagine a light, super-tough, malleable substance like that on bulletproof vests or protective clothing or car bumpers, just laughing at the kinetic terrors the world throws at it? Scientists can.

Oh, and a variation of the metal foam process can also be used to craft some pretty cool-looking objects, which is always a bonus.

Glowee Delivers Light Without Electricity

Glowee may have been at the back of the line when cool names were handed out (like BacillaFilla), but don’t let the toy-like moniker fool you. This is the kind of stuff even sci-fi writers would be hard-pressed to dream up. The material is basically sludge in a see-through container, but not just any sludge -- it’s special squid-based bioluminescent E. Coli bacteria that provides light without any external power source. It lives in a special nutrient gel, and the ensuing gunk is perfectly happy with being encased in basically whatever you feel like.

Yes, that means free light, in any shape, size or form you can dream up. Luminous pavement tiles? No worries. Cool light structures you can embed in walls? Sure, why not. A hat that spells out your name in giant, shining letters? Absolutely. Still, that’s all small potatoes, because the steak of this particular dinner is the way this invention can make the world a better place, quite literally.

Pixabay

Pixabay

“Yay for better! The world being better. Betterer. Yes.”

Consider Paris, a giant city that knows full well that it needs to illuminate its structures at night in order to not go full Gotham within weeks -- yet struggles to deal with the strain this puts on the electrical grid, not to mention the insane expenses. Many cities have wrestled with this illumination/power issue for years, so Glowee is something Europe, in particular, has really jumped on and is currently developing into a Big Thing.

Wait, that company’s going to be the Facebook of illumination within a decade or so, aren’t they? Dammit.

Like this article? Check out “Insane Sci-Fi Biotech That We Have Right Now” and “Where’s All The Cool SciFi Stuff We Were Promised As Kids? Well, Actually …”.

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