Five Novel Uses for Smart Materials

Heart-monitoring sportswear, flexible film, and more

3 min read
A man adjusting his socks.
Photo: Sensoria Fitness

THE INSTITUTEWearables aren’t the only devices making use of smart materials. A material is considered smart when its properties respond to their environment and collect data to send to a smartphone or other computer.

The global smart-materials market, valued at almost US $38 billion in 2016, according to Zion Market Research, is expected to reach more than $70 billion in 2022.

Here are five applications of smart materials in the works.

A man adjusting his socks.Photo: Sensoria Fitness


Sensoria Fitness, a company in Redmond, Wash., that manufacturers artificially intelligent sportswear, has developed smart fabrics embedded with textile sensors [see photo, above]. The sensors convert physiological signals—like strain, pressure, and temperature—into electrical signals and relay the information to a data processor.

The company’s products include smart socks, smart clothes, and wearables. The smart socks have three textile sensors on the bottom to detect pressure in the wearer’s sole. Conductive fibers send data to a Bluetooth-powered anklet on the wearer’s leg. The rechargeable anklet, which weighs less than 29 grams, can count the person’s steps, measure speed, and track the number of calories burned. The device also can track cadence and where the foot lands—which can help identify running styles that lead to injury.

The company also develops clothing—including T-shirts, vests, and sports bras—with a detachable heart rate monitor. Data from the monitor is sent via Bluetooth to the Sensoria mobile app. The monitor also has ANT+, a wireless protocol that allows the company’s other monitoring devices to communicate with each other.

The products are machine-washable. Prices range from $70 to $400.

 Engineers at MIT have developed a sticky, lightweight bandage that can be used on any part of the body.

The bandage is formed by pouring a liquid-rubber solution into a 3D-printed mold, which has grooves and spaces where cuts can be made. The pattern of slits in the bandage is reminiscent of kirigami, a variation of origami that involves cutting the paper, rather than solely folding it. The kirigami-like film gives the bandage flexibility and improved grip.

They may be made from several materials including soft polymers and metal sheets for flexible electronics. The researchers’ next step, they say, is to utilize a gel so medicine can be applied directly to the skin.


Researchers at the Institut de Mécanique des Fluides and Laplace Laboratories, both in Toulouse, France, are creating an airplane wing [above] that can change its shape and vibrate along its edge, imitating the aerodynamics of birds, according to IEEE’s Engineering 360.

Shape-memory alloys are embedded in the wing’s surface to control the angle of the airplane’s wheels and allow for continuous wing movement. The European Commission provided 932,500 € ($1.1 million) to support the research.

Airbus is the first airplane manufacturer to test the wing. It plans to complete test flights of the full-scale morphing wings starting in 2020. If successful, the technology will be integrated into the Airbus A340, the company says.

Researchers at Clemson University, in South Carolina, are developing a layered film, or “skin,” that senses when it’s damaged. The thin layer of magnetostrictive film can change shape or dimension during the process of magnetization. The film is placed between two sheets of carbon fiber–reinforced polymer.

The U.S. Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Md., gave the researchers a nearly $1 million grant to apply the material to military aircraft components. The goal is to help the Army reduce maintenance costs.

The film essentially “feels” physical stress by sensing changes in the magnetic field. It sends data to a computer in real time. The skin also will be used on military vehicles to extend their lifetime, according to a Design News report.

Cars might have scratchproof paint soon, thanks to two recent discoveries in smart materials made by researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland.

The researchers discovered superlubricity—frictionless motion—in layers of graphene. They also found that layers of hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN) are as strong as a diamond but more flexible, cheaper, and lighter, according to a Science Daily report. H-BN layers form a strong, thin insulator that can be integrated into small, electronic circuits and reinforce structures. The material is resistant to shocks and mechanical stress.

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