When you're next in the pub with your research group, here's my suggestion for a good discussion: what's the greatest advance in materials science in the last 50 years?

In the spirit of such arguments, we've assembled our own list of the top ten (page 40). There may be a few surprising choices and you might disagree with the order, but we think it is a balanced and thought-provoking selection. By all means take issue with us – I'd certainly like to hear your views and suggestions.

While list making can be a fun and stimulating exercise, I think it is worth celebrating the progress achieved by materials science. It's all too easy to keep heads down in lab work, paper writing, or grant applications. We all tend to buy into the overriding philosophy of materials science – that in mapping out structure-property-function relationships, we can understand and make use of a materials system – without ever examining where it has got us. Well, here's a list that shows the vigor and dynamism of materials science, its truly multidisciplinary nature, and its reach across many areas of modern life.

But the beginning of a New Year is also a time to look forward. What can we expect from materials science in the next 50 years? If the recent Materials Research Society Fall meeting in Boston is anything to go by, one answer is materials for energy. This was the one great focus of the conference. Faced with the predicted consequences of climate change, the need for great strides in clean energy is apparent. Thankfully, although support for this area largely dried up in the 1980s, this is now being reversed with huge amounts of funding now being made available. For example, the recent America COMPETES Act makes provision for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) sitting outside of the US Department of Energy with funds of up to $300 million in 2008. The UK has also launched its own more modest strategy in energy materials under the auspices of Materials UK.

Hopefully, researchers will rush to take on the materials challenges inherent in the options for clean energy. David Cahen of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, for one, is clear. “It's not a mini-atom project that's needed,” he told me. That had a clear path and known goals. “It's more like the efforts to eradicate polio after the war.” Anything that might possibly have an effect received some level of support in the hope that some successful approaches would result. He believes basic fundamental science is needed because there are no great new ideas at present.

So in the short term, engineers will need to rely on technical fixes to improve the efficiency of existing power plants, use waste heat, and optimize current renewable technologies. Beyond that, it's all up for grabs. There's nuclear fusion, artificial photosynthesis, clean coal technology, energy storage, and developing sustainable biofuels. In all areas of energy generation, significant materials advances will be required in the next 50 years.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70333-4