Materials library has the right stuff

Eclectic collection promotes the tactile side of science.

Click here for photos of materials in the collection. Credit: © Roxanne Khamsi

Tucked away in the basement of the engineering department in King's College London, a unique collection of substances is growing. Its curator, Mark Miodownik, hopes that his 'materials library' will help artists looking for inspiration, and scientists seeking substances with particular properties.

“When I got my materials science degree, I was surprised that the department wasn't full of materials. Mark Miodownik , University Lecturer, King's College London”

Miodownik sees himself as part of a research rescue mission. He founded the library in 2003 after seeing colleagues faced with lack of space simply chucking interesting materials away. "People were throwing things out of the lab, such as bottles of lead powder that no longer fit a research project," he recalls.

As a specialist in the design of unusual materials, Miodownik has long dreamed of bringing forgotten or overlooked substances back to the scientific centre stage. "When I got my materials science degree, I was surprised that the department wasn't full of materials," he says. Instead, people spent most of their time on computers.

His collection now includes more than 300 samples, including artificial skin made of rubber composites, and a material known as a superslurper that absorbs 400 times its own weight in water. Financial support for the materials library has come from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, both UK institutions.

“It's important for me to have a story behind each sample. Mark Miodownik , University Lecturer, King's College London”

So far, Miodownik's collection has only had around 60 visitors, mostly curious artists. But he hopes that, as the library's fame grows, more and more scientists, architects and students will come for a look around, and ultimately adopt some of the materials for use in their own work. Among his collection, for example, is a kit called the 'DNA of a city' that consists of samples of common construction matter.

"It's important to have a physical library," enthuses Stuart Preston, manager of materials information and library services at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining in Doncaster, UK. "People can touch the materials and that's a great advantage." He feels that collections such as Miodovnik's can complement traditional libraries: "If you want in-depth data, the book is still there."

Bowled over

Miodownik trawls the globe in search of additions to his collection. On a recent trip to Australia, he found himself in the remote uranium-mining town of Broken Hill in New South Wales. He started hunting through antique shops there to find a special type of glass.

Miodownik explains that in the early twentieth century people thought that radioactive materials had beneficial health properties. For this reason, they manufactured glassware containing uranium, especially in places such as Broken Hill that had an abundance of the element.

In the Australian antique shops, Miodownik flashed an ultraviolet light on various glass pieces to find one that glowed, a sign that it contained uranium. When he found a bowl that did just that, he brought it back to London and added it to the library.

Story teller

The bowl, like many items in his collection, offers insight into the history of science. "It's important for me to have a story behind each sample," says Miodownik. He stresses that other reference tools, such as one provided by the New York-based company Material Connexion, give details about different substances without letting people touch samples or learn their history. "I am going the opposite way from the Internet, towards a sensory-based approach," Miodownik says.

Miodownik will present his project at London's Tate Modern art gallery next month, a move that he hopes will catapult materials science into the spotlight. "I would like to see a British materials library for everyone," he says. "I think that's what we need."


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University Lecturer, King's College LondonUniversity Lecturer, King's College London

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Khamsi, R. Materials library has the right stuff. Nature (2005).

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