Bright Innovations Based on Smart Materials that Blur the Border Between Sci-Fi and Reality
To collect data you need sensors, to make moving machinery you need actuators or electronics. But what if all the functions are already supplied by the very material you build with? Here are some smart materials innovations made possible today thanks to advancements in nanotechnology and precision manufacturing.
Also called intelligent or responsive materials, smart materials are designed to sense and react in a controlled way to temperature, pressure, impact, and other variables. Some of them can send data to the cloud, others can reconfigure themselves as needed or even self-heal. Due to their responsive and flexible properties, these new materials will change the way we live and design products. Here are some amazing innovations based on smart materials that are poised to disrupt the products and services of the future.
Shapeshifting materials – Autonomous land vehicles can morph into a drone or even a submarine
If you’re thinking that such morphing vehicles exist already, try to take the gears, motors, rotors, and other moving mechanisms out of the equation. A team at Virginia Tech led by Michael Bartlett, assistant professor in mechanical engineering designed such a morphing vehicle approaching the shape-changing function at the material level. They started by developing a smart material that could change, hold the new shape, then return to the original form over and over again without losing function.
Inspired by an old Japanese art of paper shaping, kirigami, they devised a composite made from a low melting point alloy (LMPA) endoskeleton set into an elastomer medium. Heat causes the alloy to be converted to a liquid at 60 degrees Celsius, but the elastomer skin keeps the melted metal contained while stretching. When the metal is cooled down, the stretching is reversed and the material is pulled back into the original shape.
The material could have many applications in various fields like soft robotics, environmental services, healthcare, or even defense and security where smart materials are the key to achieve the sophisticated functionality needed for complex requirements. The team used their innovation to already create two proofs-of-concept in the lab, by building with it a functional drone that autonomously morphs from ground to air vehicle and a small, deployable submarine that can retrieve objects from the bottom of an aquarium.
Currently, the team is on working on solving challenges like manufacturing and component integration optimization so their smart composite material could go into the commercialization phase.
Acoustic garment – Your t-shirt could be also your phone
What if instead of having a phone in your pocket, you could actually wear one? A research team from MIT and Rhode Island School of Design set out to answer this and similar questions when they developed a new type of fabric that can not only cover your body but also convert sound into electric signals. Like a microphone, the material captures vibrations and can be made to display reversed properties, such as transmitting sounds to another receiver.
An MIT team has designed an “acoustic fabric,” woven with a fiber that is designed from a “piezoelectric” material that produces an electrical signal when bent or mechanically deformed, providing a means for the fabric to convert sound vibrations into electrical signals.
Image: Greg Hren
The fabric is made from a piezoelectric material that reacts to deformations by producing an electrical signal. It can capture sounds in a broad decibel range and also identify the direction from which they are coming.
“Wearing an acoustic garment, you might talk through it to answer phone calls and communicate with others,” said Wei Yan, lead author of the study. “In addition, this fabric can imperceptibly interface with the human skin, enabling wearers to monitor their heart and respiratory condition in a comfortable, continuous, real-time, and long-term manner.”
The technology could prove to be revolutionary for making hearing aids or garments that can communicate or track vital signals for health benefits, but it can also be used as a “listening ear” in the construction of spaceships, vehicles, or even buildings.
Energy harvesting fabric – Your movements could power your devices
A new type of stretchable, waterproof, perovskite-based material has been shown to transform the energy generated by body movements into electrical energy. The 3×4-centimeter prototype was able to continuously light up 100 LEDs. According to the research team, it could be worn as a base layer or integrated with shoe soles and used to recharge small devices or wearables.
Numerous attempts have been made to develop smart materials that can harvest energy from movement. However, these were unable to retain their electrical output when they were washed or crumpled. The energy harvesting device developed by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore produces energy when it is pressed, squashed, or when it comes in contact with other surfaces (e.g., skin, rubber, etc.). It can generate 2.34 watts per square meter, maintains its function even after multiple washing, folding, and crumpling cycles, and produces a viable output for up to five months.
Professor Lee Pooi See, a material scientist, and study lead said the breakthrough could eventually reduce or eliminate the need for batteries in wearables: “Despite improved battery capacity and reduced power demand, power sources for wearable devices still require frequent battery replacements. Our results show that our energy harvesting prototype fabric can harness vibration energy from a human to potentially extend the lifetime of a battery or even to build self-powered systems. To our knowledge, this is the first hybrid perovskite-based energy device that is stable, stretchable, breathable, waterproof, and at the same time capable of delivering outstanding electrical output performance,” she stated.
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