Nature turns smart

What makes a smart material smart?

A number of factors changes the way we think of materials: they become responsive to the environment, or have an especially useful function. So how can we show ‘smartness’ in materials?

Manuel Kretzer is a researcher with the Computer Aided Architectural Design department at the ETH Zurich. He is interested in how materials ‘evolve’ towards the usefulness that we consider smart, and he held the ‘Materiability’ lecture at Material Xperience 2014. Materiability is Manuel’s term for the process of turning smart materials into useful applications.

Exciting examples, video presentations and of course physical samples of advanced materials were shown during his seminar at Material Xperience.

In his talk, Manuel used images to demonstrate the evolution of materials and how mankind uses them. The steps are as follows.

1. We start with raw natural materials, such as wood.

2. We become able to understand and mix materials, such as concrete.

3. We start to use them in systematically, in structures.

4. The development of synthetic materials expands our possibilities.

5. We develop digitally processed materials.

6. The uses, and challenges, of smart materials.

To bring all this into perspective, Manuel set up the Materiability initiative in 2012.The platform is intended to bring designers, developers and all others who share a passion for smart materials. During the lecture, Manuel shared great examples of these smart materials in action.

Dye-sensitized Solar Cells

A solar cell’s quality is dependent on its energy conversion efficiency. Current commercially available silicon PV cells range between 12% – 15%. In June 2013 Sharp Corporation set the record for the world’s most powerful solar cell, based on a concentrator triple-junction compound, with an efficiency of 44.4%. Dyes can help to further increase this sensitivity and efficiency.

Soft Robotics

Soft Robotics is a research area that draws inspiration from invertebrate animals, such as squid, starfish and worms. Because they don’t have internal skeletons, such animals can serve as an inspiration for developing alternatives to hard-bodied robots. In soft robotics flexible, soft materials that can be continuously deformed are investigated explored. This has the potential to create structures that move according to the properties of the materials used.


Bioplastics have come a long way towards being viable alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics. They help reduce CO2 emissions, make for less toxic waste and so on. But they still can’t compete on equal ground with petrochemical polymers. This is largely due to higher production costs, but there is also a fear of increased deforestation or of losing land for agriculture. Even so, bioplastics are on the rise, and global consumption is expected to grow at rates up to 25-30% until 2020.

These and other examples serve as guidelines towards answering the question of what makes a material smart. Manuel’s research, which he conducts together with his students at the ETH Zurich. has many more examples. See more in his presentation, which you can download here.

Images via / Manuel Kretzer.