From the Mehrauli Iron Pillar near the Qutub Minar in Delhi to the foundries of Bastar, where the tribals sculpted figurines from smelted iron and brass hundreds of years ago, metallurgy and materials sciences has had a long tradition in India.

Perhaps in keeping with this, the finding by Thomson Reuters that India occupies the sixth position in terms of research output in material sciences, and is one of the leading countries in the Asia Pacific region, comes as an encouraging development.

According to the Thomson Reuters Global Research report: Materials Science and Technology, China leads with 55, 003 scientific papers followed by the US (38,189); Japan (25,473), Germany (16,832); South Korea (15,261) and India (12,693).

Materials science and technology is a core area of research for many economies due to its potential contributions to manufacturing processes and innovative products, and Asia, including India, is leading in this area of research, the report released recently said.

The use and development of materials has constituted a major current in the history of mankind. The history of technology is replete with important examples of revolutionary change brought on by the discovery of new materials and new uses for materials. Bronze gave way to Iron, then to Steel and arguably now to Silicon.

Will graphene replace silicon in electronics? Will cars be fuelled by hydrogen stored in metal-organic frameworks (MOFs)? Will stem cells grown on nano-fibrous scaffolds make organ replacement routine? The fact that we can pose these questions says something about recent advances in materials science and technology, the study says.

MOFs are porous crystalline solids which can be shaped to store gas like hydrogen, methane etc. Their potential for energy storage has generated lots of excitement among scientists.

IIT ranked 20th

Interestingly, the Indian Institute's of Technology slammed by Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh (himself an IITian), as doing hardly any worthwhile research, is placed 20{+t}{+h} worldwide in terms of institutions ranked by citations in materials science research.

These findings are based on a study of over 11,500 journals and tracking of the growth of materials science research outputs — substantive articles and reviews over the three decades from 1981.

Materials science now accounts for nearly 60,000 articles and reviews per year, representing about 5 per cent of all such papers in the sciences indexed in web of science. By comparison, Chemistry represents 11.5 per cent, engineering and physics 9 per cent each.

The interesting areas of materials that are growing are around the nano-science front, which serves as the bridging area between physics and chemistry. Other major research fronts close to materials are solar cells, fuel cells and polymerisation, the study report said.

As suggested here, we may now be entering a distinctly new Age of Advanced Materials.

Asia to fore, US lags

Who will be in the vanguard of this change? Asian nations and institutions are clearly focusing their research efforts on new materials. There does not appear to be a similar commitment to this research on the part of Europe and North America — especially on the part of the US which has seen its world share of materials sciences research papers not only fall by half in the last three decades but actually decline in output in the late 1990s and in the early years of the last decade.