Smart Materials: 2011 in Review January 2012
The overall financial climate remained challenging in 2011, but smart-materials (SM) continued to advance in terms of both technology and overall commercialization. Driven by a number of external forces, interest in SMs and related technologies increased through 2011. Key driving forces included the desire tor energy savings and the increasing popularity of touch-screen devices. Companies announced developments in existing applications, new potential applications for SM technology continued to emerge, and researchers announced progress in the capabilities of SMs.
As in 2010, industry insiders and analysts remained extremely positive about the future for many SM technologies in 2011. In general, industry experts continued to view SMs and related technologies as very important enabling-technology areas. A few important market-research players produced new market figures in 2011. In February 2011, Reportlinker.com announced that "The global electroactive polymers product market is expected to be worth US $2.78 billion by 2014." According to a June 2011 BCC Research report, "the global market for SMs was worth around $22 billion in 2011; BCC expects the market to increase to over $40 billion by 2015—representing a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 13%." Also, according to a November 2011 Pike Research (Boulder, Colorado) report, "unit shipments for energy harvesting enabled devices will experience strong growth over the next few years, increasing from 29.3 million units in 2010 (mostly kinetic wristwatches and wireless sensor networks) to 235.4 million units by 2015 (comprising a much greater diversity of consumer and industrial applications)."
Perhaps the largest challenge SM producers and users faced in 2011 was the powerful earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern coastal regions of Japan. The automotive industry and the electronics industry are both major users of SM technology, and a number of OEMs and suppliers had to shut their factories. Nevertheless, Japanese companies showed tremendous strength, determination, and resolve in overcoming the issues that they faced in 2011.
Automotive and transportation players continued to consider the benefits of SM technologies, and—generally speaking—cars, trucks, trains, and aircraft were all target applications for new SM devices and concepts.
In terms of existing commercial products for cars and trucks, automotive OEMs continued to expand their use of piezoelectric actuators in fuel systems. In addition, Magnetti Marelli S.p.A. (Corbetta, Italy) filed a patent describing a shape-memory-material-enabled choke system for the intake systems of internal-combustion engines. Lord Corp. (Cary, North Carolina) continued to produce magnetorheological-fluid technology for use in automotive-suspension systems, specifically via Chinese player Beijing West Industries Group's (BWI's; Beijing, China) MagneRide system. (BWI acquired MagneRide technology from Delphi Corporation [Troy, Michigan] in late 2010.) In 2011, the third-generation MagneRide system saw implementation in a number of new cars, including the latest models from Ferrari (Modena, Italy) and Land Rover (Gaydon, England). In 2011, electrochromic-mirror-producer Gentex (Zeeland, Michigan) announced that it would supply Land Rover's new Range Rover Evoque and a number of General Motors' (GM's; Detroit, Michigan) European divisions with advanced auto-dimming mirrors for several of its latest vehicles. (Specifically, components for GM's Opel and Vauxhall brands.) The deal meant more commercial success for Gentex's technology, which was in use in over 2.5 million vehicles throughout Europe and North America through December 2011.
In addition to implementing existing SM technology, automakers also invested in future SM technologies. For example, GM continued to develop advanced SM concepts for future vehicles. In June 2011, GM announced that it would provide further funding for research at the University of Michigan to develop a number of fundamental technologies, including smart materials and structures.
Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, 2011 data suggested that the development of electric and fuel-cell vehicles might create future opportunities for SMs. Energy-harvesting technologies could prove extremely important for electric vehicles (EVs). According to a 2 November 2011 Electronics Weekly article, any help with a vehicle's power requirements could help the battery stay charged for longer. A few extra miles could make a lot of difference to an EV driver. So, EV makers will look to expand on existing regenerative-braking technology and perhaps apply thermal, solar, or mechanical energy-harvesting systems, perhaps creating opportunities for thermoelectric and piezoelectric harvesters. A specific example of SM use in EVs emerged through Ford Motor Company's (Dearborn, Michigan) prototype hybrid-electric bicycle—the E-Bike—that featured a magnetostrictive system for switching between human power and electric power.
The development of energy-efficient technologies for power-generation applications remained big news in 2011. Some avenues of SM development addressed improvements in existing power-generation technologies. For example, researchers at the University of Maine (Orono, Maine) were recipients of a $1.2 million US Department of Energy award to develop smart sensors for use in high-temperature environments, such as gas-turbine engines. According to a 17 August 2011 article in the Engineer, the team started to develop wireless acoustic sensors—featuring piezoelectric materials—that could optimize the efficiency of power-generation systems such as combustors and steam generators. (In addition, the US Air Force showed interest in using the sensors in jet engines.)
Thermoelectric materials continued to be an area of burgeoning interest in 2011. Well-established players such as Marlow Industries (Dallas, Texas) and Perpetua Power Source Technology (Corvallis, Oregon) continued to make progress and launched new thermoelectric generators—in particular, systems for use in wireless sensor applications. And new players seemed intent on making a mark. For example, Applied Methodologies Inc. (Wantagh, New York) and Alphabet Energy (San Francisco, California) continued working on thermoelectric systems for converting waste heat from servers and data centers into electricity.
Looking further into the future, Nanoholdings LLC (Rowayton, Connecticut) CEO Justin Hall-Tipping announced new concepts for energy generation. Specifically, Nanoholdings announced a concept for power-generating windows—using a mixture of technologies first developed for night-vision applications and smart window films. In extremely simple terms, the company envisages a system that combines the functionality of electrochromics, thermoelectrics, and photovoltaics.
Developments in SMs for advanced sensors, consumer electronics, medical devices, and related applications, continued to emerge through 2011.
Smartphones and consumer electronics continued to drive SM development. In late 2011, Murata Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (Murata; Kyoto, Japan) announced the development of a prototype tactile remote-control unit featuring piezoelectric sensors, enabling users to control electronic devices using twisting and flexing movements. In addition, Murata looked to expand its sensors business with a foray into smartphones. Murata already produces piezoelectric blur-compensation sensors for use in digital cameras. However, these sensors are currently too large for small devices. According to an 11 October 2011 Nikkei English News article, the parts maker will expand its products into smartphones—a move helped by Murata's acquisition of Finnish sensor maker VTI Technologies Oy (Vantaa, Finland).
Given the development of novel, disruptive technologies, the profile of artificial-muscle technology really increased through 2011. A 2 September 2011 article in the Economist discussed the potential for electroactive polymers (EAPs) to replace motors in some application areas. Perhaps most significantly, the article highlighted a novel motor technology under development at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (Auckland, New Zealand). The Auckland research team announced the development of an EAP system that can turn a wheel continuously—a feat that natural muscle cannot achieve. Its system features a set of six spokelike EAP actuators that contract rhythmically, applying pressure to a soft ring that surrounds the driveshaft. Artificial Muscle Inc. (AMI; Sunnyvale, California) continued to develop EAP motor technologies. Specifically, AMI continued with its development of EAP actuators for smartphone displays that could replicate the clicking sensation of a real button. Researchers at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver and Kelowna, Canada) announced the development of powerful prototype artificial muscles that comprise carbon-nanotube yarns. According to Columbia researcher John Madden, the microscopic yarns can "move and rapidly rotate objects two thousand times their own weight.... While not large enough to drive an arm or power a car, this new generation of artificial muscles could be used to make tiny valves, pumps, stirrers, and flagella for use in drug discovery." And researchers at Bristol University (Bristol, England) continued to develop concepts for the use of EAP actuators to move robotic arms—replacing conventional robotic actuators and motors.
Research and Development Activity
In 2011, researchers at R&D establishments around the world continued to develop new SMs with enhanced or novel properties or perhaps completely new processes or applications. Examples of interesting work that caught my eye include the following:
- Bizarre energy-harvesting concept. A January 2011 SBI article on smart materials suggests that researchers would announce the development of bizarre SM technologies for energy-harvesting applications in 2011. It is not wrong. In November 2011, researchers at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan) announced they were developing spiral-shape piezoelectric generators for harvesting energy from insects. The team hopes to use insects as mobile monitoring platforms for use in hazardous environments; the generators could provide power for onboard cameras, microphones, and other sensors.
- New SMA formulation. Numerous developments in the composition of smart materials occurred throughout 2011. For example, researchers at the University of Zagreb in Croatia developed shape-memory alloys (SMAs) that do not rely on titanium and nickel. Instead, the team announced the development of new SMA materials using copper and aluminum. These alloys could ultimately provide a low-cost alternative to existing materials.
- Novel medical technologies. SMs—especially piezoelectrics (imaging and diagnostics) and SMAs (for example, stents, catheters, and endoscopes)—have several established commercial uses in medical applications. In 2011, some novel applications emerged for SMs in new medical applications. For example, Nottingham Trent University (Nottingham, England) researchers explored the use of SMs—including SMAs, EAPs, and ionic polymer metal composites—in treating facial paralysis.
- Metamaterials developments. The January 2011 SBI article on smart materials anticipates further developments in metamaterials. In 2011, researchers at Southeast University (Nanjing, China) created a structure using metamaterials that can change the way radio waves interact with a copper cylinder, so that observers view the copper cylinder as a completely different material.
- Self-healing materials. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (Oberhausen, Germany) created a novel synthetic self-healing rubber material using a mixture of microcapsules and elastomers. This development highlights a nice application of established self-healing technologies, hitherto in use in composite materials, to monolithic polymeric materials.
For many years, most advanced-materials R&D—including that for SMs—took place in long-established industrial nations such as the United States, Japan, and many European nations. Fast-forward through 2011, and this environment had changed completely. By the end of 2011, a great deal of R&D was ongoing in emerging economies. According to the ISI Web of Knowledge, of about 6250 papers published by researchers on the subject of smart materials in 2011:
- The Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) funded the most research into SMs in 2011, in terms of the total numbers of papers that researchers produced. PRC researchers published 26.5% of all papers on SM technologies, followed by the United States, with 23.4%. Other top contributors included Japan (8.2%), Germany (7.3%), South Korea (6.6%), France (5.3%), India (3.9%), Taiwan (3.3%), England (2.8%), and Spain (2.6%).
- The world's top funding agency was National Natural Science Foundation of China, which funded 8.6% of all research. Second was the National Science Foundation (4.6%) in the United States. Other contributing organizations included DARPA (the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; 0.7%), the European Union (0.4%), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (0.3%), and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (0.3%).
- In total number of SM-related publications, top institutions included the Chinese Academy of Sciences (China; 191 papers), Tsinghua University (China; 86 papers), the Pennsylvania State University (Pennsylvania; 70 papers), the Harbin Institute of Technology (China; 52 papers), Tohoku University (Japan; 64 papers), the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia; 63 papers), Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute (Hong Kong; 60 papers), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Massachusetts; 60 papers).
The above data do not relate directly to either the quality of research or the overall importance of the undertaken research. Nevertheless, the data still illustrate that universities and research establishments in China, India, and Russia conducted a great deal of SM-related research in 2011.