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The smart materials revolution is here

April 22, 2024

By Chris Cogswell, PhD

Empa researchers designed aerogel-filled glass bricks that are translucent, letting in natural light while being thermally insulating and strong. (Source: Empa)

Empa researchers designed aerogel-filled glass bricks that are translucent, letting in natural light while being thermally insulating and strong. (Source: Empa(opens in new tab/window))

New materials are stronger and more sustainable, and they do what was previously unthinkable, whether reacting to light cues or healing themselves from damage.

Many of us had our first lesson in materials innovation as children when we heard the story of The Three Little Pigs and learned that while straw and sticks couldn’t survive the onslaught of the Big Bad Wolf, a house made of bricks stood firm. Since the time that tale was written, materials like concrete, steel and glass came to represent innovation in the form of soaring skyscrapers and sprawling industrial facilities.

But today, those stalwarts are seen as “traditional,” while newer, innovative materials are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Materials are usually thought of as inert substances that we manipulate to make or augment things. But what if the materials can be reactive? What if they’re “smart”?

The stuff of science fiction is rapidly coming to life as the chemical and materials industries are evolving and innovating. Increasingly, researchers and manufacturers are discovering how to integrate digital and smart characteristics into materials, enhancing critical functionalities like heat resistance, tensile strength and corrosion resistance.

Better materials are in the making

In the chemicals industry, there is always a need to devise better protective materials, especially coatings that can prevent corrosion and other types of degradation. Protective coatings are especially important for steel, which is used so widely given its relatively low cost and high performance. Yet unfortunately, this mighty alloy is easily subject to corrosion.

A paper in Nature(opens in new tab/window) recently revealed the development of a bio-inspired, self-healing and anti-corrosion waterborne polyurethane (WPU) coating that boasts enhanced tensile strength, damage resistance and anti-corrosion performance. Most impressive, perhaps, are its “self-healing” properties. The paper’s authors explain that “Importantly, due to the reversibility of the hydrogen bonding array, the fractured WPU can easily heal and restore its original mechanical properties when subjected to heating at 50 °C.”

They go on to note that the coating “presents a revolutionary solution for creating multi-functional, high-performance smart material in harsh environments.”

Seeing the light

Just as some new materials may be able to react to heat, others can react to light. Researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering(opens in new tab/window) have created light-activated composite devices that can make precise movements and form complex shapes. Reporting on their paper in Nature Communications(opens in new tab/window), Tufts Now(opens in new tab/window) writes: “The design combines programmable photonic crystals with an elastomeric composite that can be engineered at the macro and nano scale to respond to illumination.”

The Tufts team sees a lot of potential for this research to expand into the development of smart light-driven systems — notably solar cells that could follow the sun’s direction and angle of light. Considering that solar power is one of our greatest and growing clean energy sources, smart materials and systems like this could be hugely beneficial in addressing the climate crisis.

Building smarter

Returning to construction, a recent article in PlanRadar(opens in new tab/window) highlighted a dizzying array of the most innovative new construction materials, including liquid granite, cooling hydroceramics, super strong aerogel, transparent wood (more eco-friendly and thermally efficient than glass), and self-healing concrete (bacteria is the key ingredient!). Sustainability is an important element in many of these materials, whether it’s that they are made from renewable sources or that the material itself provides an eco-friendly benefit (keeping your home cooler or warmer naturally, for example).

Most of these smart new materials include traditional materials as well — but by combining them in different ways, introducing a new component, or utilizing a groundbreaking technique, they transform into something even better.

Many smart materials also end up being quite flexible in their applications:

New patents reveal growth in smart materials

Innovative developments like these are not an anomaly. A recent Accenture report(opens in new tab/window) shared data that illustrates that the “materials revolution” is underway.

In 1980, 70% of materials-related patents cited just one material and 6% cited three or more; in 2020, 46% of patents cited one material and 24% of patents cited three or more.

In 1980, just 4% of materials-related patents referred to smart and digital properties, compared to 24% of patents in 2020.

According to the report: “Over the next several years, growth rates for innovative new materials are expected to exceed those of traditional materials, creating an estimated growth opportunity of US$150 billion by 2025.”

Clearly the opportunity is there. Is your organization prepared to take advantage of it?

Staying current with cutting-edge materials research

Fascinating breakthroughs and findings full of possibility are coming out every day. To keep up with latest in materials research, many engineers use Elsevier’s solutions and resources:

A smart and sustainable future

What is particularly exciting about the growth of smart materials is that they reflect the best in imaginative high-tech advancement while also addressing our most urgent ecological challenges. Which is to say that not only do many of these smart new materials have an incredible “wow” factor, but they accomplish these technological feats while also being more environmentally responsible than traditional materials.

That is not to say that traditional materials are a thing of the past. Even the straw, sticks and bricks of old have their place today. But the future of materials science will be integrating established materials with the latest techniques and technologies to create new materials that are not just smart but truly brilliant.


Chris Cogswell, PhD


Chris Cogswell, PhD

Customer and Engineering Global Consultant


Read more about Chris Cogswell, PhD