Scientists working on ‘smart materials’ to bring about ‘smart revolution’

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An early prototype of the smart shirt developed at Georgia Tech. Photo - SensaTex Inc.

Ideas like car panels made by silkworm cocoons, camouflage clothing that can be switched at the flick of a switch and “smart” shirts with a phone and power source implanted in the fabric can become a reality soon, thanks to scientists working on these projects funded by the US air force.

A recently published research reveals that advancement in material sciences is gathering momentum and has the potential of transforming industries that are finding it incredibly difficult to compete due to rising costs and scarcity of raw materials.

The recent edition of the Royal Society Journal Interface published a report compiled by Oxford University researchers David Porter and Fujia Chen in which they examined the structure of silkworm cocoons. It was found to be extremely light and tough with properties that will inspire use of advance materials in the manufacturing of protective helmets and light weight armours.

“Silkworm cocoons have evolved a remarkable range of optimal structures and properties to protect moth pupae from many different natural threats. These structures are lightweight, strong and porous and therefore ideal for the development of bio-inspired composite materials,” Porter and Chen said.

Their research could lead to lightweight armour that dissipates rather than deflects the particular components of a blast that is more harmful to the human body – much like crumple zone in modern cars or sound absorbent sonar tiles that make submarine harder to detect.

Moreover, Porter and Chen’s research has an important economic standpoint as it could point out to new materials for fabrication of car panels that could be produced in fastest-growing car markets of China and India.

Fritz Vollrath, who heads the Oxford research group, said supplies of cocoons are plentiful. “Present raw silk market production globally is half a million tons annually.”

Vollrath added the production of silk through cocoons which is being experimented for making car panels is tough and sustainable.

The researchers are also working on carbon footprint calculations but Vollrath said most of the production process is carbon neutral as silkworms require mulberry bush and do not emit methane as cattle does.

Porter stated that the next stage would be to study the way of cloning the structures in cocoons or use them as one of the base materials to saturate with gels to further develop a scalable production process.

There are several examples for commercial exploitation of the structures found in the natural world out of which the ‘lotus effect’ stands out from the rest. The lotus leaf keeps itself free from dust and dirt thanks to the tiny nodules found on the surface of the leaf which stops water from settling on it.

This research led to the development of self cleaning windows and also the inventions of advanced exterior paints. Velcro is a material developed by a Swiss Engineer named George de Mestral who observed that flowers stuck to his trousers on the mountain thistle during his walk in the countryside.

Artificial muscles that can copy the colour changing ability of squid and zebra fish were also discovered by scientists that could eventually be used as camouflaging ‘smart clothes’.

‘Chromatophores’ found in some fish and reptiles contain pigments which gives animals the ability to camouflage has led to the creation of the soft artificial stretchy muscles developed by the researchers of University of Bristol in the UK.

The Bristol-based scientists said their camouflaging technology could also be used to regulate the temperature of the wearer at the flick of a switch.

The Zebra fish has an ability to pump pigmented fluid from under their skin which has been used by Rossiter and his colleagues in the invention of the artificial muscles.

“The application of this biomimetic pumping action to thermoregulation is most easily understood by considering smart clothing or a ‘second skin’ which contains heat-emitting fluid. When the wearer is cold, the fluid is kept close to the skin. When the wearer becomes hot, the fluid is translocated to the outside of the ‘second skin’ where heat energy is radiated away from the body”, said Rossiter whose group is keen to look for potential applications from artificial skins for robotics industry and new electronic devices.

“We are keen to move from laboratory prototypes to commercial products, and this is expected to be through industrial partnerships,” he said.

The journal Advanced Materials has published new findings by the researchers of University of Exeter about a high-tech clothing which is “most transparent, lightweight and flexible material ever for conducting electricity”.

This material is based on a substance named as grapheme, a form of carbon, and is being one atom thick yet 100 times stronger than steel. It also helps in accelerating the process of creation of clothing with its implanted devices like mobile phones and MP3 players.

The Exeter group, led by Dr Monica Cracium, is working on a spray-on version of transparent material named as ‘GraphExeter’ applicable on ‘smart’ tee-shirts or on windows to turn them into solar panels that are 30% more efficient compared to present day ones.

Indium tin oxide acts as a main electrical conductor which is highly used in electronics. However, it is not flexible enough and is a finite resource with a span time of only five years, hence more expensive. The Exeter researchers say that to date the viable alternative for this vital resource has not been found out.

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