intelligent materials smart materials are changing the world

Smart materials and technologies – the future today

Smart materials adapt to environmental changes without human intervention, “remember” their original shape, or even repair themselves. Not only do these smart materials simplify our everyday lives, they also offer solutions to the problem of raw material scarcity in the future.

Smart materials at the first Formula E race in Switzerland

E-mobility is being researched all around the world. A recent event that symbolized the increasing importance of this theme was the staging of the “Formula E” race in the city of Zurich in June of this year. As part of the same event, experts from the private sector and the world of research unveiled the vehicles of the future – hybrid and electric cars.

But how do electrically powered vehicles reach such high speeds? The key to success here – be it general e-mobility or highly powered electric race cars – is the power produced by lithium-ion batteries. These batteries enable mobility to be generated in a much less environmentally damaging way than cars powered by gasoline and diesel, thereby helping to preserve the quality of our air. With the further development of even more powerful and environmentally friendly batteries, it is only a question of time before our streets are dominated by electric vehicles.

Smart materials drive the market for electric cars

Smart materials drive the market for electric cars

72 percent of all cars will be electric in some form by 2030.
Strongest growth to be expected from pure electric vehicles.

ICE = Internal Combustion Engine (incl. start/stop)
MHEV = Mild Hybrid EV (48 Volt, energy recovery),
HEV = Full Hybrid EV (start/stop, energy recovery, coasting and sailing, EV mode), PHEV = Plugin Hybrid EV (like HEV and onboard charger)
EV = Electric Vehicle

Source: RobecoSAM

Energy storage produced from smart materials

In the case of “Formula E” race cars, lithium-ion batteries weighing 200 kilograms facilitate acceleration from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour in 2.9 seconds. The race cars can reach a maximum speed of 225 kilometers per hour. These powerful batteries are the result of decades of research into the use of lithium, and a prominent example of an energy storage concept based on a number of different smart materials.


Developing a lithium battery cell from smart materials

Each cell of a lithium-ion battery consists of a cathode and an anode, a separator and an electrolyte. Graphite is frequently used for the anode. Both electrodes can store lithium ions between the lattice planes.

Source: “Physik” Journal 13 (2014) no. 10

But the quest for even better ways of storing energy – solutions that are stronger, lighter, and smaller – is far from over. Superior anodes in lithium-ion batteries should have the effect of increasing both longevity and storage capacity, while at the same time shortening charge times – all with the assistance of newly developed smart materials. This example shows that there are no boundaries when it comes to further developments in the microstructure of materials.

Scarcity of resources encourages the use of smart materials

But laboratory success is all very well: What truly matters is the viability of these materials for wide-scale use in the electrical industry. Limited or more complex access to primary resources represents a further challenge. To give an example, political instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo is making commercial relationships more difficult in the case of cobalt, a key component of lithium-ion batteries.

Experts believe the supply of the key raw materials required for batteries such as lithium and cobalt is sufficient for the time being. Nonetheless, industries strive to locate new deposits, develop more efficient extraction methods, and recycle batteries. The development of more effective technologies to mine and process the raw materials for batteries – as well as the quest for suitable new materials – is therefore of great commercial importance.

The 3D printer has recourse to up to 100 different materials, which can be modified in their form and nature, according to requirements.

Smart materials require smart technologies

As well as making driving a quieter and more environmentally friendly experience, lithium-ion batteries also allow us to make longer telephone calls. But lithium-ion technology is just one example of a smart material. Automatically darkening and temperature-regulating windowpanes and objects that can change their size and form or have “memory” capabilities are other examples from the world of smart materials. Without the corresponding technology in the form of state-of-the-art computer software, robots, and other highly sensitive machines, the development of new smart materials and their practical application would be inconceivable.

Smart technologies can be used in a variety of fields

Three-dimensional printers, for example, have been widely used in the manufacturing industry for a number of years now. The process starts with the creation of a digital model, which is then reproduced as a three-dimensional object in the printing process. To do this, the printer has recourse to up to 100 different materials, which are applied in thin layers during the printing process and can be modified in their form and nature, according to requirements.

The modern worlds of medicine, aviation, automotive construction and even architecture would be unthinkable nowadays without 3D printing. Irrespective of how differently 3D printers are designed, the end result is always the same – a ready-made and efficiently produced product. The precise processing of materials therefore not only makes the production process cheaper, but also less resource-intensive, which makes 3D printing even more attractive.