The 6 Coolest Material Breakthroughs Of 2017

Car exhaust ink. 3D graphene. A brand new blue–and a brand new crayon.


Materials are a designer’s paint and canvas–and for the most part, they’ve remained pretty static in recent decades. But over the past few years, and in 2017 in particular, we saw new advances in material science that gave creators plenty of exciting toys to play with, from brand new colors and types of inks to new ways of reusing older materials. Here are six of the most innovative.

[Photo: Graviky Ink]

Super Black Paint From Car Exhaust

MIT Media Lab alum Anirudh Sharma invented a device that attaches to the exhaust pipe of vehicles to capture soot before it reaches the air. That’s great for the environment–but it turns out it’s also good for artists. Sharma and his colleagues found a way to transform this soot into black paint, and after years of research they released a series of inks, pens, and artist paints made of the material this year. Each pen’s ink contains about 45 minutes of car exhaust–air pollution that was prevented from reaching people’s lungs and can instead be turned into art.

[Photo: Aectual]

The First 3D-Printed Floor

The Dutch company Aectual uses giant 3D-printing robots to lay down a super-durable recycled bio-plastic material across huge surfaces. Once a design is created, the cracks are filled in with terrazzo, a mix of recycled chips and a binding material. In 2017, it created custom floors for the clothing company Loft’s flagship store in Tokyo, and then moved on to the floors for the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

[Photo: Melanie Gonick/Mit]

The Perfect Material For Building In Space

Graphene–a two-dimensional form of carbon–has long been considered a miracle material because it’s so strong. This year, scientists at MIT found a way to turn this ultra-thin material into three-dimensional structures that are 10 times stronger than steel and only 5% as dense. The breakthrough material takes scientists one step closer to the sci-fi dream of building a space elevator. And in the meantime, it can also help reduce the amount of steel needed in infrastructure back on Earth.

[Photo: courtesy Kaynemaile]

Chainmail For Buildings (Inspired By Lord Of The Rings)

Kayne Horsham is something of a 21st-century weaponry magician. He was the creature, armor, and weapons art director for the Lord of the Rings movies, and during his time on set Horsham and his team wove together 80,000 rings to make each chainmail shirt for the film’s stars and extras. He knew there had to be a better way to make the material, so when the movies wrapped in 2001, Horsham developed a way to use injection molding to create the material mechanically, rather than by hand. Today, Horsham runs a materials business based entirely on his mass-manufacturable chain mail, which has become a popular material for architectural facades and interior design elements.

[Photo: Crayola]

The First New Blue In Two Centuries

Discovering a new color is rare and difficult–but the newest blue pigment in 200 years was found by accident. In 2009, the chemist and Oregon State University professor Mas Subramanian was concocting new combinations of chemicals with the idea of creating a new material for use in electronics. To his surprise, he stumbled upon a brand new brilliant shade of blue. And this year, Crayola decided to turn it into a new crayon color under the crowd-sourced moniker Bluetiful–which hit store shelves just in time for the holiday season.

[Photo: Erika Lapresto/courtesy Slash Projects]

Reused & Recycled Materials Are All The Rage–But You Might Not Notice

At 2017’s NYCxDesign–the New York design community’s month-long equivalent to Fashion Week–trash was all the rage. This year’s festival showed how designers are incorporating reused materials into their collections with increasing sophistication. One studio created coasters out of recycled rubber; another created a chair that was 3D-printed out of melted refrigerators; a third made a table out of discarded surfboard wax. In 2017, trash was in.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable