You are the Future! Smart materials as a platform

Self healing sensors can become a second skin, for humans and robots alike. Credit: Israel Institute of Technology

A team at the Israel Institute of Technology at Technion has managed to create a material that has self healing properties, like our skin. If you scratch or cut your skin it feel painful and you lose some functions in the hit area but over a few days the body manages to self heal the traumatised zone and you are as good as new.

Some animals push this self healing power to higher levels being able to heal more massive trauma, reconstructing a whole limb (like lizards do) or whole parts of the body (like worms do).

So far artificial materials have not been able to do so (some varnish can self repair minor scratches) and restore functionality.

What the Technion team reported in a paper on Advanced Materials is the capability of a skin like polymer (plastic) foil containing a variety of sensors to repair itself in case of damage. 

The embedding of a sensors allows this "skin" to sense temperature and pressure, just like our skin does. 

When cut or scratched the edges, of the polymer becomes soft and the polymer chains rearrange themselves till they get in contact with others leading to the recovering of connectivity. This takes place within a single day (faster than our human skin recovery time). The healing occurs at temperature between -20°C and +40°C although it is faster between 0° and 10°. Interestingly, once self-repaired the overall structure looks even more resistant than before. It seems like the polymers once they start to move around to fix the damage they create even stronger bonds increasing the resilience of the sensors.

I am using this example to point out that smart materials in the next decade will play a significant role and will be instrumental in changing our perception of the world. We no longer have inanimate objects, rather everything is potentially reactive to our interactions. Furthermore, these smart materials create a sort of platform that can be used by third parties to develop new services.

Take the example of this self healing skin. It can cover our own skin (sticking on it or just weaved into our dresses) or it can cover a robot or any other object. The variety of sensing capabilities (feeling the touch, the pressure -like gravity when a robotic hand picks up an apple...- the resistance and so on) can be exploited by applications created by third parties. 

If today we take for granted that third parties can create (they do) applications for our smart-phone, smart-watch, smart television... in the coming decade it won't be a surprise to have applications for our fridge (may be some nice recipe prompt?), for our couch (subtle massage or may be an immersive sensation matching the movie you are watching?), for the car (entertaining you?), for the window (overlaying information on what is visible through the glass?) and on.

As apps today have created a huge set of opportunities to small companies and youngsters alike, just imagine what amazing opportunities will pop up in the next decade where anything can be a potential target for applications!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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