maandag 9 februari 2015

The intelligence of a molecule

Startupbootcamp Smart Materials aims to promote entrepreneurship in the field of smart materials. Much is expected of such materials when it comes to functionality, energy use, and price. But what are they, smart materials?

Through Startupbootcamp Smart Materials ten selected entrepreneurs get access to money, mentors, office space, and a network of industrial partners to accelerate the development of their business. These entrepreneurs must be active in the field of smart materials; watch the trailer.

The report "Advanced Materials", a publication of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (2012), gives an answer to the question what is meant by smart materials.
"An answer," because there are many industrial application of materials. Examples that are mentioned in the report make clear what smart materials are.

For example, there is self-healing concrete that is mixed with bacteria.When cracks are formed in the concrete in which moisture penetrates, the bacteria become active. Their separation closes the cracks (Netherlands).

Also by adding capsules with epoxy (a polymer), self-healing concrete constructions are possible. When in this type of concrete cracks are formed, the capsules break and the epoxy will repair the damage (Singapore).

Cement can also be mixed with graphite particles, which function by their electrical conductivity as a sensor. This makes it possible to detect fractures, for example in buildings and underground infrastructure, such as sewers and tunnels (Singapore).

In self-healing coatings tiny capsules are often processed. If the coating is damaged, the microcapsules burst and a chemical reaction is triggered, which repairs the damage. Such intelligent coatings substantially reduce the costs of corrosion to aircrafts, machine parts, boats, and water treatment plants (Germany, Singapore, USA).

Much attention is paid to the extraction, recycling, and substitution of rare earth materials (neodymium, yttrium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, cerium, indium, lanthanum, and tellurium), which for instance are used in magnets, batteries, and high-tech devices (France, Japan, USA, Canada).

In membrane fuel cells the customary platinum (with its high and volatile price) has been replaced by (less expensive) polymer-based electrolytes (Israel).

Graphene is a unique material, because it is composed of a single layer of carbon atoms; it is one of the strongest materials in the world and it is a very fast semiconductor. There is now a battery with graphene that has a higher energy density and longer life than other lithium batteries. Rechargeable batteries with graphene can be recharged within minutes instead of hours. It is expected that graphene will also be used in semiconductors and flexible displays (South Korea, USA).

Carbon fiber reinforced polymers (composites) are light and super strong compared to steel. Therefore, this material is increasingly used, for example in cars: a composite seat is 23 percent lighter than the current steel seat. The main factor is the lower fuel consumption, but there are other reasons to use composites: improved driving characteristics, corrosion resistance, recyclability, and multifunctional and aesthetic properties. You will also find composites in aircrafts, the blades of windmills, bridges and road bike frames. Aircraft engines with composites can be made 225 kg lighter, which reduces fuel consumption by fifteen percent. Instead of composites, magnesium or titanium can be used (Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, France, USA).

Piezoelectric crystals can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. Generators with such crystals can be placed in asphalt to feed street lighting, traffic lights and signs (Israel).

There is a thin, flexible, foldable, and water-resistant lighting system that can be printed on fabric, leather and vinyl. The product does not produce heat, it is energy efficient and requires no external light source as is the case for reflective materials. The material is now used in keyboards of mobile phones, but can also be applied in sport and safety clothing (USA).

The super-strong Dyneema fiber of DSM (located at Brightlands Chemelot Campus) can be used in clothing (sport and leisure), protective equipment (vests) and super-strong ropes (replacing heavy steel cables or chains for offshore and cranes; Netherlands, USA).

'Vitrimère' combines the properties of rubber and glass: insoluble in water, stretchable, flexible or rigid depending on the composition, but very strong, reformable when heated, and it can be recycled. This polymer is very useful to make a complex casting mold; watch the demo (France).

A new type of double glazing is three times thinner than normal double glazing and insulates two times better. Thanks to the coating on these intelligent windows it is possible to darken the window by simply pressing a button (Germany).

Glass in solar cells can be replaced by material that is less fragile, lighter and more flexible (Israel).

Zeolite beads (a type of mineral) are suitable for heat storage. These porous spheres absorb heat when they come in contact with warm, dry air, and release this heat when they come into contact with water (Germany).

By adjusting the feed of the silkworm, functionalities can be added to the silk. Silk can be easily colored by adding dyes to silkworm feed. More advanced applications can be found in the life sciences, such as silk suture and carrier material for tissue regeneration (Singapore).

A familiar example of biomimicry – simulating solutions that occur in nature – is the superhydrophobic coating, based on the leaf of the lotus flower. Water and dust literally roll off this self-cleaning coating. Such coating is still a relatively low-tech application of superhydrofobicity. More high-tech is the use in so-called. ‘lab-on-a-chip’ microfluidic devices, in which it is important to transport small quantities of liquid in a controlled way (China).

Black butterfly wings reflect little sunlight and thereby absorb a large part of the energy. Those wings are made of elongated rectangular scales; similar to roof tiles. This structure was copied to titanium dioxide with a similar structure; with this material water molecules could efficiently be converted into oxygen and hydrogen (China).

On textiles and plastic materials titanium dioxide particles can be applied. These TiO2 particles can provide unique properties, such as color fastness, self-cleaning ability or resistance to bacteria (Netherlands).

Large displays based on organic LEDs are under development, which are very thin and lightweight, with very low power consumption, fast response, and wide viewing angle (Japan).

In power station systems, power transmission networks, electric cars, railways and domestic appliances so-called converters are used. By replacing the silicon in these convertors by silicon carbide energy savings can be realized, while higher electrical currents can be processed and the converters can be made more compact (Japan).

There are supramolecular structures in the form of a capsule, which are about a nanometer in size (one billionth of a meter). Other molecules can be introduced into the cavity. Such capsules can be used for targeted drug delivery. For example, medications can be safely guided through the stomach, to be released from the capsule into the duodenum (Japan).

The color of electro chromogenic materials is 'switchable', which makes them suitable for 'electronic paper', i.e., the black and white displays of e-readers. E-paper reflects light like a newspaper and can be read in daylight. Since these screens emit no light, the eye becomes less tired compared with conventional screens. Moreover, the image of an e-paper screen is not constantly refreshed and does not disappear when the power is turned off. E-paper thus saves energy (Japan).

Viscosity is a physical property of a material: as the temperature rises, the viscosity of a liquid decreases. For many applications viscosity changes are too small, too slow or too complex. Noteworthy is the development of shock absorbers, which can be adapted to the driving conditions: an electric current affects the viscosity of the fluid in the shock absorber (China).

Shape-memory materials can return from a deformed (temporary) state back into one or more original forms. These materials do this based on external stimuli, such as temperature change or light. There are labels of shape-memory polymers that can be used to check the authenticity of a product. After heating the label the embossed characters become permanently visible. Such a label could contribute to the fight against counterfeit products (China).

Dear entrepreneur, please surprise us with your application of smart materials.
Join Startupbootcamp Smart Materials!
You can register until March 13, 2015 via

This blog post is a repost of my (Dutch) January 19, 2015 post.
Read my May 20, 2013 blog post about the reason why of my English reposts.