Almost 2,500 years ago, the Roman Empire made the most important materials advancement in the history of mankind up to that point.
With the advent of steel, which early metallurgists refined from iron, the Roman army became the world's most effective, most standardized, and most feared fighting force.
Using this rudimentary steel, the Romans made the legendary Gladius, as well as a plethora of other advanced weapons that put them far ahead of any competitor.
And they would remain ahead for more than 500 years — thanks largely to this one material and the various tools and inventions it made possible.
Today, much has changed when it comes to metals and materials in general, but one thing remains the same: It's advancement in this industry that drives innovations and breakthroughs everywhere else.
In modern times, however, the world changes much faster.
The 20th century gave us plastics, which, just as iron and steel did many centuries before, immediately changed the world.
Only instead of weapons and tools of production, plastics were used everywhere, in everything from space travel all the way to the bottle of water or soda you probably have sitting in your refrigerator.
That, however, was the 20th century... Today, those plastics and their derivatives, like Kevlar and synthetic textiles like polyester, are old news.
The new generation of high-tech materials have grown so specialized and, quite frankly, so strange in appearance and behavior that they represent not one but several major leaps forward over their predecessors.
World's Lightest Metal
Revealed by Boeing (NYSE: BA) in October of 2015 was a very strange and almost magical structure (given its sophistication, it can hardly even be called a material).
Consisting of 99.99% air, it's referred to by its creators as a "microlattice," or, more technically, an "open cellular polymer structure."
The result of this woven, geometrically enhanced configuration is a material that's stronger than carbon fiber but less than one-tenth the weight.
Below is a photo of a small chunk of this microlattice sitting on a dandelion, without any visible strain to the fragile seedpods.
There is no industry in existence that relies on strong, lightweight materials more than aerospace.
Accordingly, Boeing sees this material becoming an integral part of aircraft structures — specifically wings and control surfaces.
Eventually, however, it will find its way into more common products such as automobile bodies and sporting equipment.
Printable Circuitry... 100 Times Stronger Than Steel
Strong is good. Strong and light is better... But something that's strong, light, and also an amazing conductor of electricity is the holy trinity.
Enter graphene — a crystalline form of carbon in which carbon atoms are arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern.
It is very strong (100 times stronger than steel, pound for pound), very light, and is also an excellent conductor of heat and electricity — the best, in fact, of any known material at room temperature.
This stuff has numerous applications in everything from consumer technology to bioengineering, but one of its most immediate and prospective applications is in the field of energy storage.
Because graphene is so efficient at absorbing and releasing heat and electricity, batteries made from it will take between 100 and 1,000 times less time to charge and discharge.
The potential for technological disruption and emerging trend-based investing is almost limitless here.
Just imagine what companies like Tesla, whose entire business revolves around the battery market, or Apple or Samsung, whose devices are limited in size and operational ability due to shortcomings in modern lithium-ion batteries, could do with something like this.
When used to make circuits, it's proven to be workable enough that it can be applied using specialized 3D printing technology.
Oh, and it's almost completely transparent.
The problem, however — and the opportunity — lies in its price.
When news of this super-material went public a few years ago, graphene wasn't just the world's best room-temperature conductor of charge... it was also perhaps the most expensive material ever created.
A single square micrometer of it (that's 1/1000th of a millimeter) costs as much as $1,000 to produce.
Within a year, however, that price had fallen drastically — to the relatively bargain-basement price of $100,000 per square meter.
Still sounds expensive, but it's far, far closer to mass production viability; and with the benefits it brings, the future for this super-material is guaranteed to be a very bright one.
And well financed. Ford (NYSE: F), IBM (NYSE: IBM), Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), and defense giant Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) are all eying this as one of the future staples of high-tech manufacturing.
This broad range of materials and substances has one common characteristic: The individual nano-particles have to be smaller than 100 nanometers, one-billionth of a meter, and in at least one dimension.
For a bit of perspective, think of it this way:
A 30-nanometer sphere and a regulation basketball are sitting side by side. The nanoscale sphere is then scaled up to the size of the basketball.
Next, the basketball is scaled up to the exact same factor.
The result would be a basketball stretching from the Earth to the moon — or about 230,000 miles.
So they're small, but they're also highly varied and specialized.
Because the size parameters allow for a nanoparticle to be long, they can take on fairly complex and unique properties — and can be engineered to extremely precise tolerances for highly focused applications.
One very compelling field of application for nanomaterials is in biotech.
Called piezoelectric nanotube polymers, these long, hair-like strands produce an electric charge whenever a mechanical force is applied.
Using such a nanomaterial in human bones has the amazing effect of accelerating regeneration following an injury.
The same technology has already been proven to be used in clothing, with the effect of turning a jacket or a shirt into a power source for wireless devices.
But that's just a couple niche applications.
Precisely manufactured molecule-sized structures will be integral to the development of next-generation computer chips by defeating current limiting factors such as heat dissipation.
Nanomaterials will provide manufacturers with nanocrystalline starting materials, ultra-high purity materials, materials with better thermal conductivity, and longer-lasting, durable interconnections, allowing for a downscaling in size of microprocessors by an order of magnitude or more.
And that's still just scratching the surface. The Department of Defense, long in search of a non-toxic replacement for the depleted uranium armor-piercing projectile — which is a crucial and almost ubiquitous class of ammunition for all NATO-equipped militaries — is now looking to nanomaterials for the answer.
Right now, nanocrystalline tungsten heavy alloys and composites are being evaluated as potential candidates to replace depleted uranium penetrator rounds — and yes, once proven, the demand will be enormous.
The list goes on and on from there, including but not limited to new-generation thermal and chemical sensors; high-powered "super magnets," crucial for electrical motors, power generators, and medical imagining; stronger, longer-lasting satellites; a host of aerospace components; improved efficiency batteries; and even improved building materials.
A standout in this field is Nanometrics Inc. (NASDAQ: NANO), which focuses on semiconductor fabrication.
But for the big name in this field, perhaps none is greater than Hewlett Packard's Quantum Science division (NYSE: HPQ).
With potentially billions in investment capital behind research and development efforts, there's no telling where the technology will go in the coming years.
The only thing for sure is that we'll see more of it everywhere.
Don't Think of it as Technology
Technologies are what we associate with the things we use on a daily basis to get on with our modern, interconnected 21st century lives.
And at the foundation of every new groundbreaking device or service sits a material that made it all possible.
For thousands of years, humanity toiled with a relatively limited range of naturally occurring, mechanically, or chemically refined metals.
Today, as technological development is hitting its evolutionary stride, this new generation of materials is doing the very same thing from behind the scenes.
So you won't see the Elon Musk of Tesla or Tim Cook of Apple raving about it at the next big product launch, but the long-term implications of what is now looking like a golden age in super-materials design and discovery will prove to be far greater and further-reaching.