Smart materials could ‘transform your lives’

20 February, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Smart materials could ‘transform your lives’

LONDON: Imagine concrete bridges that can heal cracks without human intervention, or tiny machines that can be injected into the body to treat disease.

These are just two applications for a category of smart materials that change and adapt to their environment. Inspired by living things, they have the potential to transform the way we live, according to a new report.

But they might also need regulation to avoid unintended consequences, says the document from the UK’s Royal Society. Some “animate” materials are already here:      

self-repairing paint and concrete that can patch itself up have made it into commercial products. But more applications are on their way, reports BBC.

“This is a really important century for us. We are going from an inanimate view of materials, where we make them, they are sophisticated but they fall apart and then we replace them, to a more biological view of the stuff we are going to make,” said Prof Mark Miodownik, one of the report’s co-chairs.

“Bridges in the future are going to know they are damaged and then they are going to be able to do something about it.”

There are two key approaches for self-healing concrete. One uses capsules embedded in the concrete that crack open in response to damage. They release a substance based on bitumen that mineralises when exposed to air and water, filling the damaged area.

The other concept also uses capsules, but filled with bacteria. When the concrete cracks, the capsules release the bugs which produce the mineral calcite to heal the damage.

The technology has already been trialled on roads in the UK, reports BBC.

Other applications of self-healing materials are in phone screens that can repair themselves when cracked, and electronics that grow back damaged circuits, restoring function.

“The question in my view is not, if it’s going to happen, it is when it’s going to happen. The question is, is this report premature? I don’t think it is,” said Prof Miodownik.

“You see lots of little bits of it happening. So, now is the time to get the scientific community together to say: ‘This is where we’re going, so now let’s change our mode of working’. At the moment it is very disparate, with pockets of work all over the place, not talking to each other and without a common aim.”

Medicine is another big area expected to drive the use of animate materials.