Sunday, October 6, 2013

Material Intelligence: The Programmable Matter

The new era is an epoch of smart materials where materials and non living things can have intelligence without any circuits, processing power, mechanical gadgets involved - it comes directly from the materials properties at nano-scale. Intelligent materials are being developed for a lot of purposes and include functionalities like:
  • Piezoelectric materials - convert vibrations to electricity and converse.
  • Shape memory alloys - remember their shape at temperature zones.
  • Magnetostrictive materials - reshape under magnetic influence and converse.
  • Magnetic shape memory alloys - change shape under significant magnetic field.
  • Magnetocaloric materials - reversibly change their temperature in ratio to magnetic field.
  • pH-sensitive polymers - change their volume with ambient pH.
  • Temperature responsive polymers - respond to temperature changes.
  • Halochromic materials - change colour with acidity.
  • Chromogenic systems - change colour with electricity, heat or light. LCDs use such materials.
  • Ferrofluids - strongly magnetizable fluids just by presence of magnetic field.
  • Photomechanical materials - change shape with light.
  • Polymorph materials - mold with hot water.
  • Self-healing materials - heal their own wear and tear.
  • Dielectric elastomers -  produce high strain with electricity.
  • Thermoelectric materials - convert temperature difference to electricity and converse.

This opens the doors to a new science of programming matter itself. Using any combination of materials above or other such materials it is possible to program the material to achieve basic functionalities that would normally take a computer processor or human brain to perform. A BBC news article mentions discovery of shape memory alloys that can be reshaped indefinitely by heating and cooling without wear and tear. The martensite structure of the shape memory alloys allows the materials to 'decide' conditionally and by the use of conditional programming of the materials they can be used to perform functions like automatic window openers or even as the means to guide solar panels on the Hubble Space Telescope to always point towards sun.

The programming of materials opens a front at nano-scale physics that uses the skills of computing and materials science to acquire results with no complexity at the macro level.

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