Smart Materials for the Internet of Things

Smart Materials for the Internet of Things

Sensors – within the Internet of Things they measure temperature and pressure inside machines, identify open windows and doors, or monitor blood pressure and heart rate. Now, new technologies enable the production of smart materials that can both serve as sensors and actuators.

Smart materials can operate without external sensors and monitor themselves, making them interesting for future IoT use cases. A report by Allied Market Research (AMR) projects 15 percent annual growth in the smart materials market, generating up to 70 billion U.S. dollars in revenue in 2022. The researchers predict a high demand for smart materials especially from industries operating in the Internet of Things. 

Smart materials for driver safety

AMR divides possible smart material applications into actuators and motors, sensors, transducers, structural materials, and coatings. Based on potential end users, they segment this market amongst others into industrial, consumer electronics, healthcare, retail, and automotive. In the latter for example, according to the eSafety Forum, almost one in three serious road accidents are caused by driver fatigue. The EU-funded Harken Project aims to improve driver safety by developing heart and respiration in-car embedded non-intrusive sensors. Sentient materials are integrated into the safety belt and the seat cover of a car. The system detects the mechanical effect of the heartbeat and the respiratory activity while filtering and canceling the noise caused by the moving vehicle elements, vibrations, and body movements. A signal processing unit collects and processes the sensor data in real-time. The Harken system monitors the fatigue-related physiological activity of the driver – i.e. modifications apparent in his breathing and heart rate – to anticipate and prevent car accidents related to fatigue by alerting the driver.

Intelligent ink

Another EU-funded project, the Graphene Flagship, looks into graphene, a two-dimensional carbon structure. Its characteristics are elasticity and enormous strength, but also an excellent electricity and heat conductivity giving graphene the ability to sense parameters like temperature, humidity, pressure, or light. Furthermore, graphene is such a thin material that it can be printed onto an RFID tag or an electronic circuit. A spin-out company from the University of Cambridge developed a graphene ink which can be printed on glass, paper, and plastic substrates. The researchers predict that low energy consumption and the ability to support high data speeds will make graphene a suitable material for new communications technologies like 5G and for Internet of Things applications.

The Cambridge Graphene Center’s (CGC) latest invention is a method for applying graphene-based ink onto cotton to produce a conductive textile. In contrast to existing wearable sensors that rely on rigid electronic components mounted on textiles, the new ink-impregnated cotton fabric is breathable, comfortable to wear, and washable. “Turning cotton fibres into functional electronic components can open to an entirely new set of applications from healthcare and wellbeing to the Internet of Things,” says CGC’s Felice Torrisi. “Thanks to nanotechnology, in the future our clothes could incorporate these textile-based electronics and become interactive.”

Self-sensing and self-monitoring shirts

Smart clothes have a huge potential when it comes to sports and health. They can replace wrist wearables like fitness trackers or a heart rate monitors around your chest. The Hexoskin smart shirts, for example, monitor heart and breathing rate, steps and pace, acceleration and intensity of your sporting activities and also your sleeping position. The fabric is machine-washable, breathable, anti-odor and even provides UV protection. An open data API allows users to download the raw data to use their own analytics software. Professionals and researchers use the Hexoskin Connected Health Platform and data analysis software for health research, clinical development, sports, and fitness projects. 

Self-healing airplane wings

Scientists of the University of Bristol have developed a compound that can actually heal itself. The university’s spin-off National Composites Centre (NCC) together with Airbus aims to use the smart material for wings and fuselage of airplanes. The self-healing carbon skin is coated with a thin layer of nanosensors that measure pressure and temperature. If the skin is damaged due to stone chips or bird strike, the coating sends a signal that activates uncured material within the nanocrystal structure. The smart material then starts to cure the damaged area similar to an adhesive healing a crack. According to the NCC team, the material could also be used to improve bike helmets, golf clubs, tennis racquets, or fishing rods, and even nail polish and cracked mobile phone screens.

Potential for the not so far future

While some applications – mainly smart garments – are already on the market, most smart material technologies are still objects of research. Small and medium enterprises currently lack the adoption of smart materials due to the high costs, according to the AMR study. But the researchers estimate that the introduction of several government initiatives and programs as well as the increasing demand for enhanced smart materials from industries such as construction, manufacturing, and automotive will drive the market in the next years.

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