Bringing Smart Materials to the Masses
Plastics that change shape, fabrics that light up, paints that conduct electricity – these aren’t technologies of the future. Such smart materials already exist, and according to social scientist Catarina Mota, they’ll soon find practical application in everyday products.
Mota is the co-founder of openMaterials.org, a place where tinkerers and makers share information about so-called smart materials. She spoke recently with an audience at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh, Scotland about the importance of understanding how these materials work and the ways in which open sourcing can help shape the future of such technologies.
Mota showed off some of the smart materials that she believes global consumers will one day see on store shelves. A paintable circuit, for example, might soon be replicated by laser printers and high-tech writing utensils that use conductive ink.
And thermochromic pigments – that is, paint that changes colors at temperatures slightly higher than ambient – could be used to let caretakers know when baby’s bottle is the right temperature for drinking.
But there’s a problem with studying such innovative technologies, Mota said. The components necessary to build these smart materials are hard to obtain in small quantities, which makes it difficult for ordinary people to get a hold of them.
“There’s barely any information available on how to use them, and very little is said about how they are produced,” Mota said. “So for now they exist mainly in this realm of trade secrets and patents only universities and corporations have access to.”
This is why Mota and fellow openMaterials.org founder, Kirsty Boyle, have created an online database where those interested in experimenting with smart materials can share what they know through do-it-yourself tutorials, research papers, and other sources.
Mota makes a strong case for the importance of such a site, saying that in the later half of the twentieth century, many people stopped paying attention to how things are made, which leaves them clueless as to how to fix things or form critical opinions about the materials they use in everyday life.
“We can’t shape what we don’t understand, and what we don’t understand and use ends up shaping us,” Mota said. “If we are to live in a world made of smart materials, we should know and understand them.”
Mota used the example of conductive ink in telling the audience how the production of smart materials can be made more accessible to the masses.
Two scientists at the University of Illinois published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society about how to produce conductive ink in a lab. Jordan Bunker, an amateur electrical engineer, used the paper to make his own version of the ink at home with store-bought materials and a homemade vortex mixer.
Bunker, who published all the phases of his experiment on his blog, is just one of many sources available at openMaterials.org. Mota’s hope is that both makers and researchers will continue to grant others access to their findings in order to further the cycle of innovation that comes with sharing information.
“Acquiring preemptive information about emerging technologies is the best way to ensure that we have a say in the making of our future,” Mota said.