Smart Materials 
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Smart Materials

A smart fluid developed in labs at the Michigan Institute of Technology
Science and technology have made amazing developments in the design of electronics and machinery using standard materials, which do not have particularly special properties (i.e. steel, aluminum, gold). Imagine the range of possibilities, which exist for special materials that have properties scientists can manipulate. Some such materials have the ability to change shape or size simply by adding a little bit of heat, or to change from a liquid to a solid almost instantly when near a magnet; these materials are called smart materials.

Smart materials have one or more properties that can be dramatically altered. Most everyday materials have physical properties, which cannot be significantly altered; for example if oil is heated it will become a little thinner, whereas a smart material with variable viscosity may turn from a fluid which flows easily to a solid. A variety of smart materials already exist, and are being researched extensively. These include piezoelectric materials, magneto-rheostatic materials, electro-rheostatic materials, and shape memory alloys. Some everyday items are already incorporating smart materials (coffeepots, cars, the International Space Station, eyeglasses) and the number of applications for them is growing steadily.
Each individual type of smart material has a different property which can be significantly altered, such as viscosity, volume, and conductivity. The property that can be altered influences what types of applications the smart material can be used for.

I. Piezoelectric Materials

Piezoelectric materials have two unique properties which are interrelated. When a piezoelectric material is deformed, it gives off a small but measurable electrical discharge. Alternately, when an electrical current is passed through a piezoelectric material it experiences a significant increase in size (up to a 4% change in volume)

Piezoelectric materials are most widely used as sensors in different environments. They are often used to measure fluid compositions, fluid density, fluid viscosity, or the force of an impact. An example of a piezoelectric material in everyday life is the airbag sensor in your car. The material senses the force of an impact on the car and sends and electric charge deploying the airbag.

An illustration of the Piezoelectric Effect

II. Electro-rheostatic and Magneto-rheostatic

Electro-rheostatic (ER) and magneto-rheostatic (MR) materials are fluids, which can experience a dramatic change in their viscosity. These fluids can change from a thick fluid (similar to motor oil) to nearly a solid substance within the span of a millisecond when exposed to a magnetic or electric field; the effect can be completely reversed just as quickly when the field is removed. MR fluids experience a viscosity change when exposed to a magnetic field, while ER fluids experience similar changes in an electric field. The composition of each type of smart fluid varies widely. The most common form of MR fluid consists of tiny iron particles suspended in oil, while ER fluids can be as simple as milk chocolate or cornstarch and oil.

MR fluids are being developed for use in car shocks, damping washing machine vibration, prosthetic limbs, exercise equipment, and surface polishing of machine parts. ER fluids have mainly been developed for use in clutches and valves, as well as engine mounts designed to reduce noise and vibration in vehicles.

The MR fluid is liquid as shown on the left, when no magenetic field is present, but turns solid immediately after being placed in a magnetic field on the right.

III. Shape Memory Alloys

Shape memory alloys (SMA's) are discussed in further detail at the page titled

  2001 SMA/MEMS Research Group 
 Last modified: Aug 17, 2001