Smart world

It’s no surprise that when you’ve been around the world of innovative materials as long as Materia creative director Els Zijlstra, only the really inspiring materials continue to amaze and challenge.

This is exactly what smart materials do, and it’s also a prime reason that Material Xperience 2014 focused on the subject this year. In an in-depth look at the subject, Els defines three main themes. They are: smart nature, or clever use of natural principles; smart techniques, applying technology to materials; and smart materials, materials that react in a useful way to the environment.

A host of natural inspiration can be found in materials’ innovation. For instance, bacteria can help heal concrete and power bio-luminescent lamps which emit light as long as they are provided with methane for food. Mushroom spores, or mycelium, are added to sawdust to make packaging material, and can also be used to print chairs as a kind of leather, such as the mycelium chair by Eric Klarenbeek.

Less natural is the use of colloidal silver. Did you know that the term blue blood comes from the grey-blue colour you get when you ingest too much silver? This bacteria slayer used to be so expensive that only nobility could afford it, hence the term.

Smart techniques are extremely interesting as new technologies such as 3D printing and CNC milling can add smartness to material. An example is printing efficient structures that mimic bones to only use matter where it is required. Daniel Buening’s Natural Column project is a great example.

The most striking materials are the smart interactive materials. These super-materials respond to external changes. Of special interest at the moment are the energy-generating materials. Besides well-known examples such as PV cells, these include:

– Piezoelectric cells that generate energy from changes in applied pressure, such as in the Smart Highway;

– Thermoelectric cells that generate energy from changes in temperature, for instance using warmth from your walking boots to charge your phone;

– Di-electric polymers, which can make materials move with forces generated by a small heat differences, creating self-regulating awnings and solar protection;

– Super-absorbers, polymer materials that can absorb many times its own mass in water on and retaining it. It then swells into a hydrogel that remains stable, even under pressure. For use during floods and leaks.

All these materials and many more were discussed in Els’ lecture during Material Xperience 2014. The conclusion is clear: smart materials are here to stay. Their impact on the way we design and build the world is only going to grow further.