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Current Research

Current Research

The scope of material social futures research is of course very large. To provide focus and coherence, the MSF research training is nested around a number of themes.

The Material Social Futures of Energy

How energy is used and valued is as important as how it is made, stored and released. The material science of energy is thus as important as the social science and humanities of energy. Current MSF research is looking at the capturing of energy through solar cells and the impact more efficient materials in these cells might have in shaping energy demand. It is investigating the relationship between demand and the role of nuclear power, as well as the consequences of different public perceptions on the role of nuclear in the future. These perceptions affect regulation and shape not just nuclear power, but other innovations in power generation. Research is looking at the storage of energy in batteries and how the chemistries of these might alter through the use of new elements. New efficiencies thus enabled might shape different patterns of storage affecting where batteries are to be found and the purposes they are put to. Batteries are heavily used for mobile devices, including cars, but batteries could store wind powered energy to be released to a fixed network when demand requires. Storing energy entails energy loss, and research is looking at how to recycle that lost energy. This might be achieved through new material forms – nanoscale films, for example. But these materials have implications for the environment, just as does the use of new elements in batteries. Where elements come from can also have adverse political consequences, some of the world’s poorest countries being primary providers. The economics of energy are important too, and future research will look at the cost of energy.

Research Themes
Research Themes

The Material Social Futures of Computing

Computing is essential to our society, but until recently the materials used in computing have been taken for granted, even though some of the world’s rarest metals and minerals are vital to the engineering. So just like batteries and their chemistries, computing and its materials science base has political and environmental implications. Energy has been similarly ignored in computing research even though the amounts required by the technology (both in terms of manufacture and use) is enormous: cloud farms are beginning to use more and more of the world’s energy, as a case in point. Yet one should look at computing not just for its material science or energy use, one should also look at how it enables wholly new ways of storing information, such as personal memories. Hence the ‘cost’ of computing always needs to be judged alongside its value. MSF research is looking at how to make the cost of energy more important in design. AI processing in the cloud is energy intensive, for instance, and this begs questions about whether that cost is equal to the insights AI provides. Other research is looking at the social value that data storage might provide and what might be the measures that people themselves use to determine this value. Interfaces are central to this but are relevant not just to questions about data footprints and similar; they might also enable better understanding and control of other systems people use, such as for the heating of buildings.

The Material Social Futures of Materials Waste

The past century and more has seen revolutions in materials science, with many new materials being invented that have changed everything from packaging to transport to energy. But many of these innovations have been undertaken without reference to the by-products of their manufacture or their use. Plastic bags, for example, allow the delivery of fresh food but are mostly made from a limited resource – oil. At the same time, their strength results in them lingering in the environment long after they have been used. Most plastic bags do not decompose. To change how plastics are manufactured, used and recycled will require substantive innovations in material science and in the social practices that have taken plastics for granted. It will affect the economy, too, with ‘cradle to grave’ processes coming under greater societal scrutiny in favour of circular economy solutions. MSF research is looking at how recyclable plastics can be engineered, and the cost implications of this for instances of everyday use – such as plastic cups for coffee. In the autumn, research will commence into bio-degradable plastics and their impact on new business models, ones that treat production as important as repurposing. Other research will start to look at re-using by-products of manufacture, thus converting waste into useable material.  

Research Themes