The Advent of Multifunctional Materials and Structures

It’s 40 years from now, and you’re living in a geodesic dome. The population on Earth has reduced considerably to a more sensible amount. A lot of people went on the Mars craze, so there is plenty of space for everyone here now. Your dome is located near a sea port where the sun shines all year long. Now you don’t remember the last time you paid for electricity. You know it was a long time ago. The thing is, there are no batteries on sight. Your basic knowledge of physics tells you that the energy should be stored somewhere. And then there’s the even more perplexing question of where does the energy come from. True that wires have been banned for long now, but wireless transmission of electricity is still not possible for high power requirements due to safety concerns.

Geodesic Dome by VenusPetrov

After asking an engineer friend he tells you that it is the structure of the building that draws energy from the sun at a 85% efficiency and stores it in itself. Because of their huge energy storage capacity, homes typically have a no-sun autonomy of 1 month. Imagine that! The walls used only to provide structural function. Now they’re like the old solar panels… and batteries!

Is this too far fetched? Maybe not. There’s a revolution going on in material science about the so-called smart or multi-functional materials and structures. Though many times the term ‘smart’ is used I prefer the definition of ‘multi-functional’ because there can be smart materials that have only one function. Smart means that the material reacts to the environment and acts in some desired way. Multi-functional means that whether it’s smart or not, it can perform 2 or more functions.

We are still in the infancy of this revolution, but we can already see a few promising things pop up once in a while. For example there’s a pilot stretch of about 500m in the Netherlands where the sides of the road have been painted with a “photo-luminising” powder that charges up during the day and slowly releases a green glow at night for about 8 hours. This is a very early stage of development of the principles behind the story of the geodesic home.

“— Hey dad, when you were young, how did you know your heart was doing ok?
— Well, I’d go to the doctor once a year or so, if that. He would make some tests, and that was it.
— So that means that you only knew for sure that you were ok for like… a day?
— If you put it that way… kinda. We played with probabilities, because it wasn’t practical to know your heart signals all the time like now, you know?
— What if something went wrong?
— You’d have to be lucky… that you knew how to understand the symptoms, catch them early enough so that you could call doctors to come to your rescue. This could take a while depending on the traffic, which, as you know, was still human controlled. Then after they arrived you’d have to pray that you were still conscious, and if not, that there was someone rhythmically pushing hard on your chest, to pump your blood, and that there was not enough damage to your oxygen-deprived brain to cause permanent deficiencies. Finally, that the electric shocks the doctors gave you would wake up your heart and you would come back from the dead.”
— Wow! That’s what I would call living on the edge!”

That’s what a conversation may sound like in a few years! Instead of going to the doctor once a year or so to see how your heart is doing… you will know it all the time. There are constant bio-signals measurements. These signals are sent to an hospital of your choice, or your house, where the data is treated and constantly analyzed to assess your current risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and suggest you possible lifestyle changes to minimize those risks.

Below is Lotus Dome — a cool installation built out of hundreds of “smart metals” (shape memory alloys).

Just to give you sip of other multifunctional materials there are inks that conduct electricity, materials that are both mechanically resistant and electrically conductive (e.g. carbon nanotubes), thread, fabrics and yarn with electrical properties (electrotextiles), self-cleaning and self-healing materials. Their applications are still very limited, and general confined to special conditions only attained in labs. But yet, it is progress.

Damaged self-healing material viewed under UV light shows “bleeding” of the healing resin.[3]

The color of butterflies’s wings are not because of some pigment, but because of its internal structure. Did you know it is also the structure of the fingers of the water striders and the structure of the lotus leaves that give them their hydrophobic properties?

Multiscale natural structures
Image courtesy of PBS Nova

With the current revolution in 3D printing going on, it is but a matter of time before we are able to manufacture such small structures and adding them to our surfaces, adding more functions to their pre-existing ones.

This is just but a glimpse of the things to come.


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