the past century, we have learned how to create specialized materials that meet
our specific needs for strength, durability, weight, flexibility, and cost. However,
with the advent of smart materials, components may be able to modify themselves,
independently, and in each of these dimensions. Smart materials can come in a
variety of sizes, shapes, compounds, and functions. But what they all share- indeed
what makes them "smart"-is their ability to adapt to changing conditions.
Smart materials are the ultimate shape shifters. They can also alter their physical
form, monitor their environment, and even diagnose their own internal conditions.
They can also do all of this while intelligently interacting with the objects
and people around them. More boldly, it is highly likely that once smart materials
become truly ubiquitous-once they are seamlessly integrated into a webbed, wireless,
and pervasive network -smart materials will challenge our basic assumptions about,
and definitions of "living matter."
smart fluid developed in labs at the Michigan Institute of Technology
certain respects, smart materials are an answer to many contemporary problems.
In a world of diminishing resources, they promise increased sustainability of
goods through improved efficiency and preventive maintenance. In a world of health
and safety threats, they offer early detection, automated diagnosis, and even
self-repair. In a world of political terrorism, they may offer sophisticated biowarfare
countermeasures, or provide targeted scanning and intelligence- gathering in particularly
sensitive environments. In general, smart materials come in three distinct flavors:
passively smart materials that respond directly and uniformly to stimuli without
any signal processing; actively smart materials that can, with the help of a remote
controller, sense a signal, analyze it, and then "decide" to respond
in a particular way; and finally, the more powerful and autonomous intelligent
materials that carry internal, fully integrated controllers, sensors, and actuators.
components of the smart materials revolution have been finding their way out of
the labs and into industrial applications for the past decade. As yet, they fall
into several classes and categories: piezoelectrics, electrorestrictors, magnetorestrictors,
shape-memory alloys, and electrorheological fluids. What these materials all have
in common is the ability to act as both sensors and actuators. In some cases,
when a force is applied to these smart materials, they "measure" the
force, and "reverse" the process by responding with, or creating, an
appropriate counter force. In other cases, the materials are populated by sensors
that detect environmental conditions within the material itself. When conditions
cross designated thresholds, the materials then send a signal that is processed
elsewhere in the system. For instance, "smart concrete"-under development
at the State University of New York at Buffalo-would be programmed to sense and
detect internal hairline fissures. If these conditions are detected, the smart
material would alert other systems to avoid a structural failure. Smart materials
are currently used for a growing range of commercial applications, including noise
and vibration suppression (noise-canceling headphones); strain sensing (seismic
monitoring of bridges and buildings); and sensors and actuators (such as accelerometers
for airbags). A number of companies, including The Electric Shoe Company and Compaq,
are also exploring the use of smart materials. The Electric Shoe Company is currently
producing piezoelectric power systems that generate electric power from the body's
motion while walking. Compaq is investigating the production of special keyboards
that generate power by the action of typing. Descriptions of applications for
the smart materials mentioned above suggest that their impact will be broadly
felt across industries.
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