Mechanical engineers try to account for every possibility. Unfortunately, they’re often limited by materials and their properties. New possibilities are created, however, with the advent of new materials like polymers, ceramics, metals, and now, smart materials.
Smart materials allow for the creation of machines and systems that adapt to their environment, such as robots that self-repair, skyscrapers that sense earthquakes or implants that enable brains to interface with computers. The limits of this emerging field, if they exist, have yet to be realized.
What Are Smart Materials?
Smart materials undergo a visual change in one of their properties in response to an external stimulus, such as light, pressure or temperature. Mimicking natural phenomena, these intelligent materials can change shape, repair damage and transfer energy, among other changes mechanical engineers can leverage.
The field of smart materials is interdisciplinary, drawing from fields like physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and materials science. We’d be here all day if we looked at every type of smart material, so we’ll focus on the three used most often in mechanical engineering.
If you’re a mechanical engineer — or hope to become one — expect to see a lot of these materials as new applications are discovered.
When under mechanical strain, piezoelectric materials change their atomic structure, converting mechanical energy into electric energy. The reaction goes both ways, making these materials perfect for sensors, which detect changes in the environment, and actuators, which create motion in response to a control signal, often an electric voltage.
Shape Memory Alloys
Shape memory alloys (SMAs) change shape in response to temperature and — like plastic — can be easily shaped when below a temperature threshold called a transformation temperature. What’s crazy about an SMA is that it “remembers” its original shape, returning to it when heated above the transformation temperature. When reverting to its original shape, the material pushes against external forces, making for a promising actuator that can mimic natural movement.
Magnetorheological fluids (MRFs) contain a mixture of ferromagnetic particles. Apply a magnetic field and these particles attract each other, forming chains, increasing the fluid’s viscosity and forcing the material to behave more like a solid. Mechanical engineers in the automotive, military and civil fields take advantage of this change to dampen and dissipate energy.
Smart Material Solutions
Smart materials, with their unique properties and autonomous behavior, are challenging not only traditional design concepts but also how we approach mechanical engineering. Here’s a glimpse of the current and impending applications of smart materials. (Just don’t be surprised when tomorrow brings even more innovation.)
Able to respond to bodily fluids like sweat and foreign invaders like viruses, smart materials are the heart of wearable technology. Smart sensors like those that detect blood sugar levels and deliver insulin must be comfortable enough that people will actually wear them, making the engineering that goes into them of vital importance.
America’s infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, with many of our nation’s buildings, bridges and dams failing to make the grade. What if we could change that?
Smart materials offer a glimpse into a future where buildings can stand up to the elements, adjusting windows to block sunlight or self-repairing cracks in concrete. Given their ability to dissipate energy, smart materials can even help structures stand up to earthquakes, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.
Smart materials have the potential to revolutionize robotics, opening the door to robots that grow, regenerate and change shape. Sooner than you think, soft robots composed of smart materials will move with the grace of a living creature, and microrobots will deliver medicine to only the diseased cells that need them. Your mind may wander to indestructible killer robots, but we prefer to focus on the possibility of lifelike prosthetic limbs with artificial muscles and tendons.
Adapt to An Evolving Industry
We’ve only scratched the surface of smart materials and their growing impact on mechanical engineering. Along with AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet of things), smart materials are poised to further blur the line between technology and biology.
What will this new era of innovation look like? Only time will tell. Mechanical engineers would do well to take a page from smart materials and adapt to this rapidly evolving industry.
Study Mechanical Engineering Online at UT Austin
If you’re interested in remaining an invaluable and irreplaceable asset in the engineering field, we recommend earning a Master of Science in Engineering online from The University of Texas at Austin.
Within rigorous online courses like Materials Science and Engineering, you’ll hone your engineering skills and learn what it takes to become a true innovator. Courses are regularly updated and taught by industry experts, ensuring that once you complete the program, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running. Graduate in as little as two years with the skill set and credentials needed to advance your career regardless of what surprises the future has in store.
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