Mystic Vehicle of Contemporary Technology

Researchers at Rensselaer have created the darkest material ever made. Able to absorb more than 99.9 percent of lighting, the discovery could one day be used to boost the effectiveness and efficiency of solar energy conversion, infrared sensors, and other devices.If you carefully observe designed objects around you, perhaps you may find the unspoken process of their birth. Their ingredients and parts should come from somewhere in this globe, and mixed and combined together in a factory of somewhere, through hands and ideas of somebodies. In that sense, material is a vehicle fulfilled with the soul of our contemporary technology.

In the age of information and technology, material is the most mystic medium to convey the ideas that lie behind and bring it into the world. For example, a curved windshield of the automobile seems to be a simple transparent product, but it is produced by numerous inventions such as pre-polishing of edges, water-repellent surface coating, glass lamination, improvement of de-molding agent, or self-weight-bending technology. The self-weight-bending technology of Central Glass Co., Ltd in Japan is the complicated technology when applied to the laminated glasses.

“In the age of information and technology, material is the most mystic medium to convey the ideas that lie behind and bring it into the world”

Because it is quite difficult to bend two sheets of glass simultaneously in the furnace, the micro-sized release agent is needed to let two sheets of glasses slip past each other. By the invention of this agent, layered glasses can then bend themselves according to the distribution of weight units set along their rims, which positions were carefully calculate to realize the ideal convex form. These technologies are totally unseen, but if we lack any of these, the windshield would never be made.

Another story I like is about the aluminum beer cans, which are produced by “deep draw and iron press” method. When the disks of aluminum get punched in the molding machine, their rims consequently stand and grow to form deep cylinders. The next thing is to cut the edge of the cylinder, to have the joint for the lid. It is good to know that the cylinder is made from the sheet, by employing the malleability of aluminum. This method was originally invented for the bullet cartridge, but now applied for softer metals, with more peaceful usage, with less power of the press.

When I see the continuous corner between the bottom and the side of the beer cans, I always remind of this unspoken process of production. Without it, we will need another joint for the bottom lid like steel cans.

“In that sense, material is a vehicle fulfilled with the “soul” of our contemporary technology”

If you carefully observe designed objects around you, perhaps you may hear the thud sound of the press of aluminum cans, or feel the bending forces of windshield glass in the red-hot furnace. That is why I like materials, which certainly exist in front of me, with the unspoken secrets of their birth. Their ingredients and parts should come from somewhere in this globe, and mixed and combined together in a factory of somewhere, through hands and ideas of somebodies. In that sense, material is a vehicle fulfilled with the “soul” of our contemporary technology.

To me, materials have been always abstract and conceptual. I like to see them as the forefront runners of human attempts and imagination, and want to understand the origins and cultures behind them. They are so hybrid and intellectual, and all tales of their adventure are so fascinating. My first investigation was in 1999, when I and colleague architects in Tokyo had discussed the potential of contemporary materials, to find the keywords like 1) Density of performance 2) Integration of functions 3) Surface as unstable interface 4) Re-materialization and 5) Micro-complexity*. It was so fun to us because contemporary materials were clearly questioning “the culture of assembly” of ready-made materials in architectural composition, by showing the integrated approach for forms and materials of innovative technology. Actually, as the flourish of parametric design changed the building facades in 2000s, the knowledge on materials became essential in the field of architecture.
In the following parts of this article, I want to mention three newest aspects to analyze the current tendencies in material innovation.

Materials in New Equilibrium

Normally, materials allow the wide range of changes to express their property in varying conditions, like the engineering plastic in very cold/hot climate, or the coating paint against the tough rain/sunshine.
Ferrofluid - Materials in New Equilibrium
Ferrofluid – Materials in New Equilibrium

But it is provocative to see some materials are ignoring this adaptability only by focusing on very narrow state of their being. One famous example is the ferro-fluid sculpture by Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno. The ferro-fluid is just liquid with dark metallic texture, but once it gets magnetized, the thorns appear on its surface, and the fluid changes its form like a dance, according to the varying conditions of magnetic field. It is the art to express the ambivalent property hidden in the material, shown under the limited conditions of magnetization.

Olafur Eliasson - BMW H2R

Olafur Eliasson’s BMW H2R – is one of the first of a new breed of race cars adapted to run on liquid hydrogen fuel.

Another example is Olafur Eliasson’s gorgeous project for BMW H2R; the proposal of hydrogen vehicle covered by ice. As Eliasson gets inspired by the low temperature -250℃ of the liquid hydrogen in the fuel tank, he symbolically exposed that ultra cold temperature as an exterior. Of course this is the work of art, but what we should see is that the contemporary object hides some odd physic conditions in it, controlled and equilibrated by special inner technology. The pixels on LCD screen of your computers are as same as these, as the molecules between polarizing filters are controlled to align or not to align by the micro-sized electrodes. Materials around us are not in the state of freedom. They are carefully designed and controlled to be “whatever should be, should be”.

Questioning the State of Being

The material that makes me embarrassed recently is “carbon nanotube black body”. It is the coating material to absorb light in the optical devices, which absorbency rate is more then 0.999 (or 0.001 of reflection). There is a severe competition for “the blackest coating”, and it is said the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have achieved 0.045% of reflection. As it is often discussed, the black is not the color. It is the state of light absorbency and the outlook of things gets darker and blacker when their surface doesn’t reflect lights. But it is hardly possible to make things completely non-reflective, even the object colored in black can be recognizable. The reason you can see the texture of black hair of someone is that there are reflections on it. Like this case, everything black around you is always reflecting the light, especially on its edges or rounded corners.

Carbon Nano Tube - Surface of black body: the forest of carbon nanotube absorbes the light (by AIST, Japan)

Carbon Nano Tube – Surface of black body: the forest of carbon nanotube absorbes the light (by AIST, Japan)

So, how it looks like when it is perfectly black, and perfectly absorbs any lights that come onto it. The carbon nanotube black body answers this question with its aligned “forest” of carbon nanotubes that catch the lights in nano-scale and not allow them to emit. The result is the perfect black object without any clue to the recognition for its depth and textures. If the absorbency rate becomes 1.00, the surface within the counter of the object loses its optical information, and the object looks like a hole. In that absolute condition, it is not black any more. It is completely dark. So if you have a Frisbee coated by this carbon nanotube, it can be seen as a flying hole in the air. Optically it is a null, and test us how to catch its meaning.

Confident Approach

This example of perfect black body could be heard as an exciting accomplishment of our modern technology. But if we regard its direction of evolution more abstractly, we can conclude that one of the tendencies of contemporary material is they are now focusing their own reason of being. Appearance, self-organization, equilibrium are now tested, and what we believe as the essence of the material is now just one mode of substantiation, and some material can behave as if doesn’t exit.

If it was 10 years ago, we can conclude that this trend is for the adaptability or changeability, and the materials can be praised with their “capricious” behaviors. But it seems that the materials today are more “confident” for their reason of existence, and can quickly adjust themselves to the surrounding conditions with their ability of self-control. They are phenomena by themselves, and the chance to see their “true” states of being become less and less. That is why contemporary materials attract us, with their mystic characteristics.

*”Alluring Materiality”, Hiroshi OTA et al., SD Magazine, 1999, vol.05, Kajima Publishers


Hiroshi OTAAbout Hiroshi Ota
Hiroshi is a lecturer of the Institute of Industrial Science at The University of Tokyo. He has been involved in many projects related to material innovation.
> More about Hiroshi Ota


Hello Materials exhibitionAbout the Hello Materials exhibition
Experience fascinating examples of present and future materials and gain an insight into what they will mean to society and the individual. Visit the exhibition between the 2nd of April and the 21st of September 2012.
> Visit ddc.dk for more information about the Hello Materials exhibition

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