Are Smart Materials Feasible for Widespread Usage?

Are Smart Materials Feasible for Widespread Usage?

March 20, 2024
Are Smart Materials Feasible for Widespread Usage?

In the diverse landscape of technological innovation, a thread that has been steadily gaining prominence is that of smart materials. These aren't just your typical run-of-the-mill substances but another class of materials altogether. Smart materials change properties in response to stimuli like electric fields, temperature, pressure, or light. This ability drives innovation in industries from construction to automotive, creating more efficient, durable, and adaptable products.

Their increasing popularity isn't a fleeting trend either. According to a report by Globe Newswire from April 2023, the global smart materials market is estimated to grow at an impressive rate of over 7% from 2023 to 2030. The billion-dollar growth path is due to material science advancements that have broadened the potential uses of these materials.

Yet, the critical question is whether the increasing popularity reflects the practicality of smart materials for broad use. Let's explore the factors driving their demand, the barriers to widespread adoption, and ways to overcome these challenges.

What Are Smart Materials?

In simple terms, smart materials are like chameleons of the material world. They react to changes in their surroundings and adapt accordingly, making them incredibly versatile and valuable across various industries.

For instance, one fascinating example of smart materials at work in the construction industry is self-healing concrete. This innovative material has the astounding ability to repair its own cracks, meaning it can help lower maintenance costs and enhance structural lifespan. The secret lies in the bacteria embedded within the concrete that produce limestone when they come into contact with water and oxygen, effectively sealing any cracks that may have formed.

Another instance involves shape memory alloys (SMAs), capable of recalling their initial shape and reverting to it under specific stimuli such as heat or electrical current. Construction companies could use these alloys to create structures that can handle temperature changes, pressure shifts, and seismic events. These examples show how integral smart materials are in changing how we build and deal with our surroundings.

What Are the Benefits of Smart Materials?

Smart materials are not just a scientific curiosity. They provide real, practical benefits that can transform the design, construction, and upkeep of built environments. Smart materials can amp up our buildings by boosting energy efficiency, cutting maintenance costs, and strengthening structural integrity. They have the power to make our spaces smarter, greener, and stronger.

Energy Efficiency

One of the most significant advantages of smart materials is their potential to markedly improve energy efficiency. Consider thermochromic glass, for example. This innovative material can alter its transparency in response to temperature changes, thereby controlling the amount of heat and light that enters a building. 

On a hot day, the glass becomes tinted, blocking sunlight and reducing the need for air conditioning. On a cooler day, it becomes clear, allowing more sunlight in and reducing heating requirements. In this way, smart materials like thermochromic glass can be pivotal in reducing a building's energy consumption and lowering heating/cooling costs, contributing to a more sustainable future.

Reduced Maintenance Costs

Maintenance represents a significant portion of the lifecycle cost of a building. Here, too, smart materials offer a compelling solution. As mentioned above, self-healing concrete, with its ability to repair cracks, reduces maintenance costs significantly. 

Similarly, smart coatings that can heal themselves when damaged or self-cleaning surfaces, which are coated with a thin layer of titanium dioxide (TiO2) and have the remarkable ability to break down dirt and bacteria, can minimize cleaning and maintenance efforts. 

Enhanced Structural Integrity

Smart materials are changing how we build, making structures safer and more durable against weather and environmental changes. Here's how they're doing it:

While these are only a few examples, they demonstrate how smart materials can enhance structural integrity and make our built environments more resilient. 

What Are the Challenges of Smart Materials?

Although smart materials offer great potential, it's essential to recognize the various challenges linked to their widespread use.


One of the most critical challenges is the high upfront cost of smart materials. Compared to more traditional construction costs, smart materials often require a larger initial investment. This can be a deterrent for construction projects operating on tight budgets or those wary of venturing into relatively uncharted territory. 

For example, making piezoelectric materials for high-tech sensors and actuators can get pretty complicated and expensive. And when it comes to creating polymer-reinforced aerogels, you need some special techniques that can hike up the costs.

These examples, as discussed in the IndustryARC piece on the Smart Materials Market, show the economic hurdles of using smart materials in construction and beyond. It brings attention to the importance of smart financial planning and investing in cutting-edge tech.

Takeoff and Estimating

The takeoff and estimating process for smart materials can also be more complex. However, advancements in takeoff software solutions are helping to mitigate these challenges. Here's how contractors can estimate the cost of switching to smart alternatives for some common types of construction materials:

Each of these examples shows how contractors can use estimating software to weigh the costs and benefits of alternative smart materials, ultimately making informed decisions for their construction projects. 

Outdated Regulations

Outdated building codes and regulations in many jurisdictions are another hurdle slowing down the mainstream adoption of smart materials. These regulations often do not account for smart materials' unique properties and benefits, making it difficult for architects and builders to incorporate them into their designs.

Industry Resistance

Lastly, there is an element of resistance within the construction industry itself. The unwillingness of major players to embrace these new materials has slowed down their widespread adoption. Change can present challenges, particularly in an industry rooted in tradition. However, as more success stories emerge showcasing the benefits of smart materials, this resistance is likely to wane.

Although there are challenges with adopting smart materials, developers and builders can overcome them. Through ongoing research, tech progress, and a change in mindset, smart materials could become common in construction.

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