Zach Kaplan is looking out for the little guys. In 2002, he launched Inventables, an extensive library of high-tech materials from manufacturers and innovators like Dupont and 3Form. The initial price tag on a subscription to the database—$70,000-$350,000—limited access to everyone but Fortune 500 companies, Kaplan says. So in 2010, inspired by the upsurge in DIYism and maker culture, he tossed out the sky-high membership rates and tossed all the information and products online—for free. "We wanted to democratize access to all this interesting research we've done over the last eight years," Kaplan says. The result is a prototyping designer's dream: an inventors hardware store where small quantities of samples can be purchased with the click of the button and the cash in your wallet (many materials costs less then $20). "When you're a really big company, suppliers will bend over backwards to do whatever you want them to do but if you're a small company it's see you later," Kaplan says. "Designers, artists, inventors, students—we think of them as little R&Ds. They have all the passion, energy, and drive. We want to get these materials into their hands." Click through our slideshow for 14 materials available on Inventables.com that have Kaplan's juices flowing—from rubber glass to translucent concrete.
1. Shape-Retaining Plastic. Why Kaplan digs it: "It's a flexible plastic material that holds to the shape it is bent to without bouncing back. It is an especially desirable material when you need shape retention in your product but you are unable to use metal. There are several versions available including strips with adhesive backing that only bend one way and sheets that bend 2-ways With existing uses in light weight drape fixtures, nose bridge pieces on surgical masks to closures in food packaging this is a truly versatile material."
2. Rubber Glass. Why Kaplan digs it: "Really the name says it all: It looks and breaks like glass but feels like rubber. This is often used as prop glass in movies in scenes where actors break through windows in an action sequence."
3. Ceramic Paint Additive. Why Kaplan digs it: "When these little vacuum-filled balls are mixed with paint, they pack tightly against each other as the paint dries forming a barrier against radiant heat energy. In one test, two identical, fully insulated buildings where built, and the building incorporating this additive used 52-percent less energy to maintain a constant temperature."
4. Temperature-Sensitive Glass. Why Kaplan digs it: "It's ability to change color through any kind of change in temperature. Examples are human touch, a change in ambient temperature, and coming into contact with warm or cold water. These tiles have been applied in a shower at one of the Disney World resort hotels where the color transitions from black to a more colorful palette of blue, greens, yellows, and reds as varying degrees of hot water hit the surfaces. We also feature a temperature-sensitive ceramic tile which works off the same principle but is more cost-effective when the translucent nature and luxurious feel of glass are less critical to a project."
5. Aluminum Foam. Why Kaplan digs it: "The most striking aspect of this material is the frozen, molten-bubble look on the top surface of the foam. It is particularly adept for interior applications, and besides being similar in appearance to a futuristic metallic sponge, it has sound absorbing properties."
6. Soft-Feeling Conductive Textiles. Why Kaplan digs it: "This is a coating that can be applied to almost any type of fabric to make it conductive, with virtually no effect on the fabric's strength, feel, or flexibility. It enables the incorporation of hearing elements, soft controllers, or switches directly into fabrics without having to run bulky wiring throughout them."
7. LED Light-Diffusing Compounds. Why Kaplan digs it: "Because of the increasing popularity of LEDs as a light source, the result has been the development of new diffusion materials that create a soft, even, and comfortable light source that decreases viewing strain. This compound is especially useful to scatter or diffuse lights and eliminate hot spots or glare in commercial or residential settings."
8. Powerless Illuminating Tubing. Why Kaplan digs it: "This is a non-powered alternative for lighting applications. What is cool here is that the material charges very quickly from exposure to bright light or sunshine. As little as five minutes exposure makes the tubing glow warmly for eight or more hours."
9. Translucent Wood. Why Kaplan digs it: "It's amazingly beautiful, translucent, wood grain design that allows you to bring the forest inside and create a unique fusion of traditional and modern design. Sandwiched between two rigid plastic sheets, the slices of wood are so thin that is possible to see light and shadow through genuine wood grain, and being plastic the panels can be shaped into gentle curves and 3-dimensional shapes."
10. Micro-Suction Adhesive. Why Kaplan digs it: "The most interesting aspect of this material is that the surface uses thousands of microscopic craters that work by creating many partial vacuums between itself and the surface so that it sticks without the use of any adhesive. Wiping the material with a wet tissue will remove debris from the craters, rejuvenating the suction properties as needed. Once in place, a four-inch-by-one-inch piece of the tape is strong enough to hold a one-pound flat piece of steel. It is especially cool since it is mimicking how the feet of a gecko work."
11. Color-Changing Translucent Panel. Why Kaplan digs it: "The nice decorative effect on display here is that these panels reflect light differently depending on the viewing angle. A sunlit office incorporating these panels could change color throughout the day depending on the angle of the sun, how much sunlight is coming through, etc."
12. Transparent LED Film. Why Kaplan digs it: "This film allows you to embed lighting in translucent surfaces, like a glass top surface or glass flooring, without any visible wiring. The film is a clear sheet with a transparent, conductive coating that acts as invisible wires. It is specifically designed to be laminated between two sheets of glass."
13. Multidirectional Wheel. Why Kaplan digs it: "This wheel contains eight free-turning rollers perpendicular to the axle and arranged around the wheel's periphery to provide the ability to move loads in any direction without freezing, which becomes especially interesting for modular design like movable cabinets and walls."
14. Translucent Concrete.Why Kaplan digs it: "By incorporating a web of optical fibers uniformly into the concrete, these tiles allow light to pass through, combining strength and translucency into the same building material."