Smart materials go under the spolight at Innovate UK

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

It can all sound a bit sci-fi when the topic of smart materials comes up. The classic is liquid-like morphing metallic structures that have been used, in films at least, to make up the spaceship hull in Flight of the Navigator and, of course, the iconic T-1000 from the film Terminator 2.

Morphing metallics with this amount of functionality are still some way off. However, shape memory alloys do exist, though in real terms have had very little practical application. And this is the case for many smart materials that are broadly defined as having unusual and reactive properties.

There is a host of amazing and quite futuristic materials now available, some commercially, some in the maker space environment, but many stuck in the lab due to a lack of interest or uptake from industry. The possibilities and potential does exist, however, and many feel they could be, and should be, much more widely used.

This is a key area of interest for Innovate UK, the Government agency being charged with accelerating economic growth through high value – and hence innovative – manufacture.

"Historically, the UK has been exceptionally good at the research," said Andy Sellars, a lead technologist at Innovate UK. "And industry tends to be comfortable picking up technologies once they reach technology readiness levels 8 and 9. So, at Innovate UK, our job is actually to bridge the gap between what universities are producing and what industry can use."

Innovate UK is targeting projects and applications that offer high growth potential in growing global markets. This has led to it launching a formal competition in March next year, and is keen to hear from designers and engineers about their ideas, and from companies willing to match fund the development of smart material systems.

"We want to fund areas where the UK has the technology and capacity to exploit," said Sellars. "So, for smart materials, we have high activity at the research base and SMEs working in this area, and we also have end customers that are ready to commercialise the technology."

The reaction of materials to some change in their environment is key to it being labelled as 'smart', so it must be a part of a structure or system. Classic examples may be the thermochromic paint used on small die-cast toy cars that change colour in the bath. However, smart materials now offer some truly unusual properties that are no longer science fiction. There is a vast array of materials available from magnetocaloric materials that change temperature when exposed to a magnetic field, to chemi-resisting materials that react to chemical vapours by changing their electrical conductivity, to photostrictive materials that generate strain upon exposure to light, to thixotropic materials exhibit a time-dependent decrease in viscosity when subjected to shear forces.

So why are so many designers and engineers not aware of their existence, or hesitant to use them? To help, Innovate UK has set up a website to outline the possibilities, which features an in-depth design guide on the smart materials now available. The aim is to give designers and engineers the information they need ahead of the competition launch.

Dr Steve Morris, technology manager at the Smart and Emerging Technologies Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), said: "As a scientist it is hard to know what smart materials designers and engineers want as they tend to think more laterally than I would as a scientist."

The funding for smart, hybrid and multiple materials in March will be part of a £5 million investment specifically to fund the creation of smart products and systems. Smart systems and products are defined as being able to respond to the environment, for example a crash helmet that might respond to an impact (think non-Newtonian fluid).

The competition is centrally aimed at developing the ideas of individuals to see where these materials can be used to make products more useful, and at the same time attracting companies to match fund any developments.

Numerous examples already exist. In the US, a university project developed a liquid crystal technology where the crystals themselves respond to the light hitting them causing the liquid crystal display intensity to instantly change according to the external light intensity.

The technology was then used in the head up displays of fighter pilot helmets as they were having problems going from bright sunlight into cloud or from cloud into bright sunlight as they could not see the visual display due to the rapid change in light intensity. And this is the aim, to give UK industry the support it needs to use more smart material to solve problems.

Exploitation potential

"It can be any material," said Morris. "It can be metals, composites, powders, textiles, polymers... if it looks really interesting and could make a big impact then we want to make the community aware of it. And once they become aware of it then they can think about how to use it."

Following on from a workshop in September run by the Materials KTN, part of Innovate UK, key topics for exploitation were identified.

"It was a brainstorming exercise," said Sellars. "The workshop saw engineers and designers from a number of industries identify how they could use smart materials to make smarter products.

And we then asked what is stopping them do that as there are a number of SMEs out there providing smart materials, so where are the challenges? Is it cost, the manufacturing processes, the development?"

Ultimately there are key areas of application that have since been identified as the most effective and likely to yield high value economic growth. These are the built environment, defence and security, energy, healthcare, transport and the catchall 'other'.

"Funding is competitively awarded and Innovate UK wants to see at least two companies, but welcomes more, to come together and bid for funding," said Sellars. "There are a lot of SMEs that have set up to establish a supply chain early from conductive inks, to materials that accurately change colour according to very specific temperature, to lenses that change refraction according to sunlight and so on. And this is about strengthening the position of these companies, so that's why Innovate UK wants to have partners with different individuals, universities and companies collaborating together."

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