How smart materials will literally reshape the world around us

Over the past few years, the Internet of Things (IoT) has been the white-hot center of a flurry of activity. Startups that create embedded sensors for physical things have been snapped up by larger companies at a rapid pace, with deals for IoT startups totaling more than $30 billion in the past four years.

The IoT may well be The Next Big Thing, but maybe the attention around sensors is misplaced…

What if we didn’t even need embedded sensors to allow things to gather data about their surrounding environment? What if material could be a sensor in and of itself?

Sentient materials might sound like the stuff of sci-fi, but it’s quickly becoming a reality. A new generation of materials is being developed that can sense temperature, pressure, impact and other variables — completely removing the need for sensors.

Not only can these materials capture and relay data to the cloud, they also can reconfigure themselves on-the-fly to react to changing environmental conditions. It’s as if materials are becoming not just smart, but “alive” — and it will change the way things are designed and used in startling ways.

Out of the isotropic age

How did we arrive here? Design and engineering used to focus on materials that behaved isotropically — which is to say, uniformly and predictably. In the isotropic age, you would create a design and then assign a material to carry out a specific role in that design.

What if, however, you allowed materials to determine design, rather than vice versa? We see this in nature all the time. A seed, for example, works together with a specific environment to create a tree.

It’s as if materials are becoming not just smart, but “alive.”

This is an example of anisotropic materials in action. Unlike isotropic materials, their behavior isn’t predetermined, so their performance can be tailored to their environment.

Welcome to the anisotropic age of design.

A transformation for transportation

Imagine an airplane skin that self-heals to remove dings and dents, thereby maintaining optimal aerodynamics. In the isotropic age that’d be virtually impossible to design — but in the anisotropic age, it becomes a possibility.

Here’s how it would work: An airplane component (like the wing) is made out of a composite material that has been coated with a thin layer of nanosensors. This coating serves as a “nervous system,” allowing the component to “sense” everything that is happening around it — pressure, temperature and so on.

When the wing’s nervous system senses damage, it sends a signal to microspheres of uncured material within the nanocrystal coating. This signal instructs the microspheres to release their contents in the damaged area and then start curing, much like putting glue on a crack and letting it harden.

Airbus is already doing important research in this area at the University of Bristol’s National Composites Centre, moving us closer to an aviation industry shaped by smart materials.

The automotive industry, meanwhile, can use smart materials to manufacture cars that not only sense damage and self-heal, but also collect data about performance that can be fed back into the design and engineering process.

The Hack Rod project — which brings technology partners together with a team of automotive enthusiasts in Southern California — is out to design the first car in history built with smart materials and engineered using artificial intelligence.

These materials have an increasingly important role to play in shaping the world around us.

In another example, Paulo Gameiro, coordinator of the EU-funded HARKEN project and R&D manager for the Portuguese automotive textiles supplier Borgstena, is developing a prototype seat and seatbelt that uses smart textiles with built-in sensors to detect a driver’s heart and breathing rates, so it can alert drivers to tell-tale signs of drowsiness.

Infrastructure maintenance made easy

Beyond transportation, more opportunities await in the construction and civil engineering fields, where smart materials can greatly assist with structural health monitoring.

Today, the world has hundreds of roads, bridges and other pieces of infrastructure that are slowly falling apart because of wear and tear and exposure to the elements. More often than not, we don’t even know which items need our attention most urgently.

But what if you could build these structures out of “smart concrete”? The “nervous system” within the concrete could constantly monitor and assess the status of the infrastructure and initiate self-repair as soon as any damage was sustained.

There is a major project currently underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), called ZERO+, that aims to reshape the construction industry with exactly these types of advanced composite materials.

Functional fabrics

The researchers at MIT are also hard at work at the newly formed Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute. Their goal is to come up with a new generation of fabrics and fibers that will have the ability to see, hear and sense their surroundings; communicate; store and convert energy; monitor health; control temperature; and change their color.

This is no Hollywood movie — this is reality.

These functional fabrics mean that clothes won’t necessarily just be clothes anymore. They can be agents of health and well-being, serving as noninvasive ways to monitor body temperature or to analyze sweat for the presence of various elements. They can be portable power sources, capturing energy from outside sources like the sun and retaining that energy. They even can be used by soldiers to adapt to different environments more quickly and efficiently.

And if you accidentally rip a hole in your garment? Naturally, the nanosensors within the fabric will engage a self-repair process to patch things up — in the exact same way the airplane wing and the smart concrete healed themselves.

Living in the material world

This is no Hollywood movie — this is reality, and a clear indicator of how quickly smart materials are coming along.

These materials have an increasingly important role to play in shaping the world around us — whether that’s airplanes and infrastructure or the clothes on our backs. By creating things that can not only capture data about their environment, but also adjust their performance based on that data, materials are starting to play an active role in design.

This is the potential of smart materials, and it’s one of the keys to creating a better-designed world around us.