Sci-fi becoming a Reality with Smart Materials

Fictional technologies are coming alive

What are smart materials?

Materials are basic to every manufacturing process; the smarter they get, the better will be the product. The smart materials market deals with typically designed materials, whose physical properties can be altered through controlling their operational environment.

Physical parameters, namely, stress, temperature, moisture, pH, electric, and magnetic fields, are imposed upon these special materials to facilitate their restructuring.

The demand for smart materials has been driven by the increasing need to reduce weight, component size, and complexity as well as improve design flexibility, functionality, and consistency of products. In addition, smart materials are resistant to water, moisture, dust, and other elements.

Current Scenario – What is happening in the smart materials market?

Smart materials have been moving up the technological value chain, thereby becoming a cheaper and a more powerful alternative as compared to traditional materials.

The property of smart materials to change one or more of its properties due to external stimulus and increased investments in R&D to innovate new smart materials have resulted in broadened applications of smart materials in the automotive, construction, healthcare, aerospace, and chemical industries.

Technological advancements have resulted in the increased use of smart materials as compared to conventional materials, such as polymers, metal, and glass.

Recent Trends

Researchers from Washington State University have introduced a breakthrough that can transform the smart materials market. They have developed a one-of-its-kind, multifunctional substance that encompasses the ability to restructure its physical arrangement when exposed to heat or light. The findings indicate that the photoresponsive liquid crystalline epoxy networks of this substance have three building blocks incorporated into azobenzene chromophores, liquid crystals, and dynamic ester bonds. It also achieves the successful compilation of multiple intelligent functions, such as shape-memory behavior, photo-mechanical movement, and self-healing property in one single material. Every time the material fold or unfolds, it remembers its original orientation and heals accordingly.

Investments/initiatives in the space

Besides, there have been several investments in smart materials space. A few of the recent investments/initiatives in the space are cited in the figure below:

Recent Innovations – Smart materials turning science fiction into reality

Science fiction (Sci-Fi or SF) is a genre of speculative fiction that is known as the “literature of ideas.” It typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts. With the advent of smart materials, several of these fictional technologies are emerging.

A new generation of smart 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, but they also can reconfigure themselves on-the-fly to react to changing environmental conditions.

Innovation in Transportation

An airplane skin that self-heals to remove dings and dents, thereby maintaining optimal aerodynamics, was considered impossible in the isotropic age; however, it becomes a possibility in the anisotropic age.
Airplane components are made of a composite material that has been coated with a thin layer of nanosensors. This coating serves as a “nervous system,” allowing components to sense various parameters, such as pressure and temperature, among others.

When the airplane’s wings sense 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 undertaking research in the field of smart materials at the University of Bristol’s National Composites Center, thereby propelling the adoption of smart materials by the aviation industry.

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

The Hackrod project brings technology partners together with a team of automotive enthusiasts in Southern California. The project aims to design the first car in history with smart materials and engineered using artificial intelligence.

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

Innovation in Infrastructure Maintenance

Presently, roads, bridges, and other pieces of infrastructure are slowly falling apart due to wear and tear and exposure to elements.

These mishaps can be overcome if these infrastructures are built with 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), known as ZERO+, which aims to reshape the construction industry by introducing such advanced composite materials.


Innovation in Fabrics

Researchers at MIT are working at the newly formed Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute to develop 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.

These functional fabrics mean that clothes will not necessarily remain just clothes anymore. They can be agents of health and well-being, serving as non-invasive 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, such as sun and retaining that energy. They even can be used by soldiers to adapt to different environments more quickly and efficiently.

In case, if there would be a hole in the garment, nanosensors within the fabric will engage a self-repair process to patch things up.

Source: Tech Crunch

Future Scenario

The use of smart materials requires high investments. Thus, various governmental and non-governmental bodies are focusing on increasing awareness and fuel uptake of smart materials. There have been instances where companies, such as Centexbel, have launched a new TIS action, along with Sirris to educate other companies regarding various applications of smart materials that are available commercially.


A few of the key drivers for smart materials are listed as follows:

  • Sustainability, including advances in recycling and reuse
  • Other environmental concerns, including extending service life or improved energy efficiency
  • Performance benefits

There is an increasing need for products that are able to react to changing operating conditions and user demands to achieve high-level performance. Extended system functionality is the major factor driving the demand for smart materials, globally.


A few of the barriers affecting the smart materials market are as follows:

  • Lack of market pull for material suppliers
  • High research costs
  • Problems associated with intellectual property rights in the necessary multidisciplinary research projects
  • Lack of economy of scale
  • Processing problems
  • Environmental issues (e.g., possible regulations against the use of lead in PZT ferroelectrics)

Conclusion – FutureBridge’s Takeaway

Smart materials play a pivotal role in changing the way industries operate. These materials help in designing futuristic products for a wide range of industries, which include aerospace, automotive, infrastructure, and textile.
Smart materials not only can capture data about the environment but also adjust their performance based on that data, and thus, they are starting to play an active role in designing advanced products.

Thus, the market outlook for smart materials, smart structures, and their associated applications appears to be quite promising in the near future.


1. TechCrunch (2017)
2. Mide
3. Science Direct
4. TCE
5. Robeco
6. Allied Market Research
7. Saxony-Anhalt