Malleable matter: shaping disruption through matter

3rd June 2020
The third and final session of the Intentional Creations virtual conference – Malleable Matter, on Thursday 25 June 2020 – looks at the limitations, or opportunities, of the materials underpinning the technology itself.
Designing the future has been the quest of individuals and companies since time immemorial. The successful leaders of the past had legacy and empire as their focus; Alexander the Great, of course, famously crying when there were no more lands left to conquer. 

But through it, all their ideas and intentions were powered by things, and those things were made entirely of matter. Every atom of every soldier, of every weapon and of every vehicle used to dominate their worlds, and of every component, device or machine now used to compete in their industry. 

But what if we could improve the efficiency of those materials? What if we could make materials come to life like magic? How might this spur new ideas about energy, construction and wearables?  

In the third session of this year’s Imperial Tech Foresight: Intentional Creations, our esteemed researchers look closely at the objects we will need to take us into the future. 

Programmable materials

And we start with the materials themselves. Meta-crystalline materials– things that we could create in labs or in computer models – have the power to revolutionise entire industries. Their programmable nature means that we could elevate the material properties to encourage resilience in buildings and stronger applications.  

Yet their deployment in the real world is limited by their fragile, and in some cases purely theoretical, state. Dr Minh-Son Pham, from the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, will explore how we can start to scale-up the production of these materials, and as we do, learn more about their properties 

In nature, they can move and react on their own to changes in the environment creating resilience through mitigating against floods or even earthquakes. For cities, this could even be applied across to enable auditory cloaking against sound pollution.  

With decision-making, a recurring theme in this year’s conference (check out Meta-Motivations on 11 June and Moral Machines on 18 June), putting theory into practice is a hot topic in 2020, when thinking ahead to 2040. 

Those different materials could revolutionise the energy sector, too.  

Harnessing the 2D world

Dr Felice Torrisi, from Imperial’s Department of Chemistry, is an expert on graphene and biosensors, and has been investigating the applications of different materials on things as varied as wearable technology and healthcare devices.  

It could be a game-changer in relation to keeping people safe in harmful environments too, with clothes made from smart materials providing ongoing monitoring for health – at a fraction of the cost, and with less invasive designs, than current solutions. These graphene inks can be integrated into materials but also embedded in us as humans as three-dimensional cyborg tissues 

Transparent electronics, made of incredibly thin, but efficient, materials could spark an even greater interest in the renewable energy sector, especially solar power, which in turn may increase every nation’s own energy security. 

Brilliant batteries 

Farraday Fellow Dr Ola Hekselman, from the Department of Materials at Imperial, completes the trio of experts at the third and final Tech Foresight 2040 session. Her work in battery recycling technology has an obvious immediate application as we transition to greater use of electronic devices for powering heavy industry, transportation and move from fossil fuels to renewable power and storage.  

Will there be batteries that last for a million miles, as Tesla suggests? Explore the topic with Dr Hekselman who will share her future vision.  

We will explore resilience in urban systems, healthcare and construction across different materials. Graphene might integrate successfully into our bodies allowing us to be healthier, batteries can become more long-lasting and materials can react to external factors to adapt to environmental shifts and changes.  

Those materials may not yet exist, or maybe they’re prohibitively expensive, but failing to plan for this now may be incredibly damaging in the future – the theme of this year’s conference in a nutshell. 


Imperial Tech Foresight 2040: Intentional Creations is a three-part conference taking place in June 2020, using our current understanding and historical analysis of science and technology to make better decisions about how we put new ideas into practice in the future.

The Malleable Matters session on Thursday 25 June takes place at 10:00 BST (note that this is different to the other two sessions). 

Interact online by using the hashtag #TF2040, and follow @ICTechForesight on Twitter for updates and information about the event. 

Find out about Meta-Motivations, the subject of this year’s first session of Tech Foresight 2040 on 25 June 2020. 

Read about Moral Machines, the topic for the second session of this year’s conference on 18 June 2020. 

Read more about the conference here