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Smart materials | Overview

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As the world’s raw and “dumb” materials decline, manufacturing and technological innovations are allowing humans to push for continued production and progress.

An ever-rising population has created demand for ever more farms, fisheries and mines. Research has pushed deeper and wider on our planet, but still, natural resources are in decline.

This large-scale exploitation extends from the last half of the 18th century and the start of the industrial revolution.

Interestingly, it was around the same time that scientists discovered materials with “smart” properties. They were capable of producing what is known as piezoelectricity which is generated as a result of  the application of mechanical stress.

One ‘smart’ way to do more in a world with depleted materials is to use less

But why did we hold off on developing further? Why does it seem that only now we are getting serious about materials with awe-inspiring properties, such as the ability to self-heal, or to mime biological systems with their ability to regenerate?

Is it a modern obsession to look ahead to further technology advancement? Or is it from ancient times that we have tried to do more with less?

If we look back far enough for inspiration, we might find the Romans, who, probably more intentionally than not, used lime mortar and volcanic ash in their concrete, which researchers have found gave self-healing properties.

Smart materials development is happening inside Adidas and Boeing; it is sparked by manufacturing

One “smart” way to do more in a world with depleted materials is to use less. And it’s certainly requiring less money and manpower to 3D print concrete structures (see page 42). University of Southern California professor of civil and environmental engineering Berokh Khoshnevis has developed the mechanical technique,  it’s now just a matter of addressing the economic realities.

Perhaps we can even cut out the middle man, and just let the materials organise and assemble themselves. This is what’s going on at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where “4D printing” (see page 32) is redefining what a material can and cannot be.

Self-Assembly Lab founder Skylar Tibbits certainly thinks that the smart path is embedded intelligence. Putting the processes within materials is the way forward rather than forcing raw materials to do our bidding through something as brutally simple as “electricity”, he says.

Flow sensitive pipes

The Lab’s best civils idea so far has been for pipes to expand and contract in direct proportion to water flow. But Tibbits says the construction industry is largely uninterested.

“It was an interesting initial experiment, but most of our work now has been in aviation, and automotive, furniture, shoes, consumer products,” he says.

This is a common refrain among researchers and a revealing comment on the state of our industry. Smart materials development is happening inside Adidas and Boeing; it is sparked by manufacturing, rather than engineering contractors or consultants.

A circular economy challenges traditional ideas of ownership

Meanwhile, one of the most important discoveries this century, graphene, is not transformational, but will certainly change the materials landscape.

Graphene has yet to properly hit construction, or many other industries for that matter, in terms of usability. It is 200 times stronger than steel, but as of now, a far from viable replacement.

Researchers are not phased, looking not months or years ahead, but decades, to when a newly developed material usually hits its prime. Graphene manufacturer 2D-Tech’s chief executive Neill Ricketts says: “We currently produce about 500g a week, though we are in exponential growth at the minute, we cannot produce enough and we are doubling capacity on a monthly basis.”

Circular thinking

Finally, to continue on an upward trajectory, of population, progress and growth, being “smart” in a resource-poor world requires circular thinking.

Unsustainable levels of waste from the construction industry are spurring on precast manufacturing and recycling in the “circular economy” which aims to perpetuate recycling and reuse. This changes value-equations in the supply chain and for materials themselves.

“A circular economy challenges traditional ideas of ownership,” says Arup associate Simon Anson. “We need legal innovation as well as innovations in materials and construction, to allow the easy movement of materials through a circular economy.”

Wherever the smart road takes us, shared vision and mindset are a must.

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