Science and Technology
Materials - smart materials, nanotechnology, displays, biomimicry, molecular manufacturing, biofilters, membranes
Smart materials -- a variety of materials engineered for special qualities and capable of interacting with the larger environment -- are likely to proliferate in the coming decades, serving purposes from protecting and helping us to saving energy.
Smart materials are materials that are engineered to perform specific tasks. Some of these are simply high-performance materials like the genetically engineered dragline spider silk demonstrated by Nexia Biotechnologies and used for producing super-strong, super-light military uniforms. But the smart materials that are likely to have the most impact are those that sense changes in the environment, react to it, and even signal their state - in other words, materials that function as both sensors and actuators.
Skin is a good example of a naturally occurring smart material. It senses the sunlight, it changes pigmentation in response, and the color signals that tanning or burning is occurring. In fact, most biological materials are smart in some sense, and this is why organic templates will probably be important both for designing and manufacturing smart materials in the future.
The key to these future smart materials is our growing understanding of the world at the molecular level - and our ability to manipulate it at that level, too. For example, understanding how molecules cross membranes could allow us to design materials that can function as delivery platforms (a T-shirt that delivers vitamins through the skin over an 8-hour period) or filters (a biofilter that protects a water or air supply from bacteria). Eventually, it is possible that we could develop smart materials that are able to sense our DNA and respond to our genotype for both diagnostic and drug delivery purposes. Smart materials could also be embedded with either silicon-based or organic sensors, producing paints with millions of tiny sensors that respond to the environment and communicate with one another to strengthen the insulation in very cold or very muggy weather, for instance; or ink-jet fluids with organic molecules that respond to electrical signals, forming the basis of flexible displays.
Smart materials are likely to find important applications in the following areas:
Assembly of materials molecule-by-molecule, the key to new smart materials, introduces a new manufacturing paradigm. Just as microelectronics introduced a novel set of manufacturing challenges, from unique substrates and photolithographic techniques to clean rooms,- molecular manufacturing could change the way we organize the manufacture of special-purpose materials further. For example, instead of assembling in clean rooms, we might assemble in clean vessels. Molecular manufacturing could also feed back into the engineering and design processes, bringing about further technological developments.
What to Watch:
At A Glance: