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Mapping the Future of Technology with Next-Generation Materials

Next-generation materials set the stage for a future of innovation using high-performance structural composite materials with enhanced capabilities and applications

Ajay P. Manuel

Ajay P. Manuel, PhD, is a scientific coordinator/writer for Lab Manager. Born in Madurai, India, Ajay completed his secondary education at Cairo American College in Egypt and Khartoum American...

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Ajay P. Manuel, PhD, scientific coordinator/writer for Lab Manager, discusses next-generation materials, their benefits, and future applications.

Headshot photo of Ajay P. Manuel, PhD
Ajay P. Manuel, PhD
Credit: Ajay P. Manuel

Q: What are next-generation materials?

A: The term next-generation materials refers to innovations concerning material properties, fabrication processes, and their subsequent applications. Compared to the historical performance rates of specific material classes, next-generation materials demonstrate significant improvements in their engineering, economic, and environmental performance across their entire life cycle.

The innovations surrounding next-generation materials span the very small, with improved structural properties at the nanometer scale, to novel surface geometries at the micrometer scale, and up to large-scale manufacturing of new materials and applications on the global stage. The relevant material classes for innovations include everything from metals, ceramics, polymers, composites, and coatings.

Q: What are some promising next-generation materials?

A: Broadly speaking, next-generation materials cover three classes of technologies: functional surface technologies, higher-performance materials, and new paradigm fabrication processes. 

Functional surface technologies consider advances in the interaction of materials with the environment and their service conditions, including catalysts for fuels and chemicals production, protective coatings for buildings and bridges, and the surface geometries of pistons, bearings, and drives in the automotive industry. Higher-performance materials cover innovations surrounding metals, polymers, ceramics, and composites toward various applications for energy and power generation. New paradigm manufacturing processes are necessary for materials innovations and represent the development of novel materials fabrication processes (sputtering, colloidal, 3D printing), high-volume processes for bulk material production, nanofabrication, synthetic biology, and additive manufacturing, to name a few. Here, the goal is to enable manufacturing flexibility and enhance lead time, productivity, and efficiency while reducing operating, energy, resource costs, and waste footprints. 

Nanomaterials, nanoparticles, biomaterials, graphene, carbon nanotubes, 2D materials, metamaterials, artificial spider silk, perovskites, etc., are a few among the many wonder materials touted for their innovative properties and potential for advanced applications in the future. 

Q: Why do we need next-generation materials? 

A: Next-generation materials can be designed with tunable properties, enabling them to control or adapt proportionately to a physiological environment or provide specific, induced responses. Thanks to their advanced functionality, these wonder materials can improve the productivity, efficiency, and sustainability of an organization and work toward improving the environment. Investing in next-generation materials affords ample revenue and product quality while complying with ethical and environmental guidelines. The emergence of next-generation materials also follows the predictive materials science approach that is now being favored by materials scientists. Beyond “material” benefits, the development of next-generation materials necessitates deeper exploration of fundamental molecular and atomic interactions behind their properties, resulting in greater understanding and optimization of said materials for applications beneficial to human life and the environment. 

Q: What are the potential applications and benefits of next-generation materials? 

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A: Prominent examples of next-generation materials and what they bring to the table include the production of new catalysts for renewable fuels and chemicals for a sustainable future, advanced surface coatings and geometries that improve material durability and reduce friction, lightweight metal alloys and composites for fuel-efficient vehicles, and the development of novel fabrication processes for profitable materials processing with reduced environmental footprints. Next-generation materials not only enable energy savings in energy-intensive processes and applications but also create a new research space for renewable energy generation. The progressive nature of next-generation materials also benefits the biomedical space through the use of biomaterials that are biodegradable or resorbable in smart drug delivery systems for the treatment of injuries and diseases, and the prevention of infections. Recent advances in biomaterial engineering have helped transform patients’ lives and have set the stage for advanced products such as artificial joints, tissue engineering, advanced contact lenses, pacemakers, and dental implants. 

Q: What are the challenges in developing next-generation materials?

A: Despite all that they have to offer, next-generation materials are still in the nascent stages of development. There is also a lack of knowledge about the comprehensive scope and future implications of the use of next-generation materials. Practical considerations concerning adequate R&D support and investments spanning the entire technology life cycle are needed to accelerate the development and optimization of next-generation materials. To begin, much remains to be understood on the fundamental nature of atomic and molecular interactions underpinning the exotic properties of these materials. Research of this nature also requires high-end equipment for synthesis, characterization, and testing, all of which require substantial funding. Additionally, beyond the demands of physical research, research collaborations to develop advanced computational methods and databases to enable and predict material properties and attributes, process simulations, and evaluate and optimize application performance will be necessary. Thus, continued investment in fundamental and applied research is crucial.

Ajay P. Manuel, PhD, is a scientific coordinator/writer for Lab Manager. Born in Madurai, India, Ajay completed his secondary education at Cairo American College in Egypt and Khartoum American School in Sudan. Pursuing higher studies abroad, Ajay completed his bachelor’s degree in honors astrophysics, a master’s degree in physics, and a PhD in electrical and computer engineering, all at the University of Alberta (U of A). During his time at the U of A, Ajay engaged his interests in interdisciplinary research by working as a researcher in various fields including astrophysics, biophysics, plasma physics, robotics, and plasmonics. Aside from his academic endeavors, Ajay is an avid writer and has self-published an autobiography detailing his tumultuous years at high school in Sudan in Our Last Summer: A Personal Memoir and a fictional romance in A Little Bit of Everything. An active science writer for Lab Manager by day as well as an aspiring artist and writer by night, Ajay shares his daily experiences and his love for science writing on his blogs at The Pensive Reverie and The Procrastinating Scientist. Ajay can be reached at