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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.
Summary Analysis:
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:

  • Smart textiles - MIT's Institute of Soldier Nanotechnology, for example, is exploring materials that take on different camouflage colors and patterns to more closely fit the immediate environment of soldiers.
  • Health - New materials could be developed that perform healing functions, such as delivering antibiotics to wounds or hardening into a cast if a limb is broken.
  • Security - In a world concerned about terrorism, nanomaterials could help develop products that detect biotoxins in the environment and protect the wearer against infection. Smart materials could also be used in biometrics for identification purposes.
  • Displays - Smart, flexible, thin displays could be manufactured out of smart materials.
  • Energy - More efficient batteries as well as energy-saving materials and devices can be manufactured using smart materials.

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.


  • Improved health and security
  • Increased energy efficiency
  • Change in the way the manufacture of special-purpose materials is organized

Early Indicators:

  • Introduction by Nexia Biotechnologies of a genetically engineered dragline spider silk -- a fiber with superior strength, light weight, and resistance to tearing
  • Creation by France Telecom of an optical fiber that can be woven into fabric using conventional weaving technologies
  • Development by MIT's Institute of Soldier Nanotechnology of fabrics that can change colors, patterns, textures, and porosity to camouflage, protect, and even heal the wearer
  • Development by Neophotonics of a molecular manufacturing process for photonic applications in telecom and health technologies

What to Watch:

  • Designers integrate displays and light-emitting fabrics into their designs of all sorts -- wearables, furniture, building materials.
  • Smart materials are used to detect bioterrorist threats and monitor health risks in the environment.
  • Investments in nanotechnology by developed countries rise substantially, amounting to $3.7 billion by the US between 2005 and 2008, $3 billion by Japan in the same time period, and $7.5 billion by the European Union between 2007 and 2013.
  • Investments in nanotechnology by several developing countries -- particularly China, Brazil, and India -- increase.
  • Media airs debates and conflicting views on nanotechnology and smart materials.


  • The advent of microelectronics with its manufacturing challenges


  • Growing investments in nanotechnology, which serves as a good proxy for anticipating advances in smart materials


  • US, Japan, Germany, China, South Korea


  • MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology [link]
  • Cornell University [link]
  • Columbia University [link]
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [link]
  • Northwestern University [link]
  • Rice University [link]
  • Minatec (France) [link]
  • MIC (Denmark) [link]
  • France Telecom [link]
  • Philips Ltd. [link]
  • Samsung (Korea) [link]
  • QinetiQ (UK) [link]
  • University of Bath [link]
  • University of Manchester [link]
  • University of Edinburgh [link]
  • National Institute for Materials Science (Japan) [link]
  • Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Centre for Intelligent High-Performance Structures [link]
  • Fraunhofer Multifunctional Materials alliance (Germany) [link]
  • Smartex (Italy) [link]


  • Institute for the Future. "The Connected World", SR-809. June 2003
  • Institute for the Future. "IFTF New World Map: Technology for the Coming Decade", SR-774. September 2002
  • Philip Ball, Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century, Princeton 1999, ISBN 0691009759
  • Naoyuki Tajima et al, Overview of the Japanese Smart Materials Demonstrator Program and Structures Systems Project, Advanced Composite Materials, 13, 1, 3-15, 2004 [link]

At A Glance:
3–10 years
How Fast:

Related Outlooks:

About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier versions.

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