Smart materials

What are smart materials?


A so-called “smart” material (pigment, ink, paint, coating…) is capable of spontaneously changing its physical properties (notably its shape, viscosity, color…) in response to natural or provoked excitations. These can come from the outside or the inside of the material: variations in temperature, mechanical constraints, electric or magnetic fields.

This generation is opposed to the classical material, inert by definition, whose properties always remain the same whatever the solicitations to which this material is subjected.

An intelligent material is therefore able to adapt its response, to signal a change in the environment and, in some cases, to take corrective action. It can behave like a sensor (detect signals), an actuator (perform an action on its environment) or sometimes like a processor (process, compare, store information).

The example of X-chrome materials

One of the most important families of intelligent materials is that of X-chromes. These materials have the ability to change color under the effect of an external excitation (temperature, light, pressure, humidity level, etc.). 

Such a generation of materials completely disrupts our reference points. Our surrounding world is now made of a single color. With X-Chromes, it is a true intelligence of the colors which is offered to us.

The color of these materials becomes “adaptive/interactive” with reversible, irreversible or memory effect properties. It is thus possible to detect by a simple change of color structural weaknesses in the coating of an aircraft, a temperature threshold exceeded to signal the risk of burning, …

Some applications of intelligent materials

The list of intelligent materials is constantly growing, as is the field of applications in industry, housing, medicine, biology or leisure. This is a real revolution on the scale of materials that will rapidly change our daily lives.

Some intelligent materials are, for example, sensitive to glucose for controlled release of insulin, or to electric or magnetic fields for drug delivery.

In the field of building and energy improvement, certain ionic polymers make it possible to make the glazing of a window intelligent. The material is able to be opaque or transparent in a few seconds for better light management in a building.

With smart textiles, clothes are becoming more and more active, and take care of us. Built-in sensors record our heart and breathing rhythms, LEDs integrated into a blanket cure jaundice in newborns, thermosensitive tablets change color according to temperature or UV exposure and prevent us from heat stroke…

Intelligent materials, a breakthrough innovation

Through these few examples, a whole field of applications is offered to us. But everything is not that simple. It is important to keep in mind that this is a new universe in full expansion, which constitutes a true disruptive innovation.

If we consider the world of color, for example, handling an X-chrome pigment is far from simple. To make production reliable, it is necessary to understand the complex mechanisms at work in these materials, otherwise we will not be able to master anything. We are far from the classical issues of formulation of a pigmentary charge in a paint and/or an ink. It is more a question of thermodynamics of the phenomena of phase transition, photochemical cascade,…

This also requires the use of new characterization tools. For example, the color of a material in industry is often controlled by colorimetry, but what about a material that changes according to its environment? Implementing this disruptive innovation in the industrial world is not so simple. It requires adapting production lines, training teams,…

Another major difficulty is the sensitivity of the intelligent material to its environment. Each change in raw materials, reaction medium, shear forces, heat treatments will lead to instability in production.

The challenge is to control the interactivity of these materials until the finished product. This means controlling the maintenance of the desired “intelligent” property throughout the manufacturing process: color, trigger threshold, speed, reversibility/irreversibility.

But nothing is insurmountable. These difficulties are barriers to entry for a competitor who would like to copy your innovation. By integrating an intelligent material on one of your products, you gain access to interactivity, it’s a way to “rebrand” an item, to “rejuvenate” it.

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