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Shape memory alloys for your tooth and for rovers on Mars

A wheel made with the Nitinol alloy, extremely light, flexible and with the potential to sense the ground, designed by NASA for the Mars Rover- Credit: NASA

Science and technology has progressed to the point that it is now possible to design materials bottom up, starting from the desired characteristics to create a material with the atomic and structural composition to deliver them.

There are already several “smart” materials that have been created through design and the number, and applications, will grow in the next decade.

GRaphic showing the change of components in cars over the 2010-2040 period. The percentage of alloy is growing steadily. Source: CAR Research

As an example, look at figure showing the change in materials expected to be used in car manufacturing over the next 20 years.  These changes will reshape several industries, enabling new products as well as modifying the players in the supply chain.

The global market for smart material will be huge, since it will be (basically) the market for the whole supply chain. For autonomous systems one can segment the market into the several areas where smart materials are (will be) used, including implant material, sensors and actuators, structural materials, shape memory, smart fluid, alloys, as well as by type of material.

As an example, advanced ceramic materials had a global market value of 72.74 B$ in 2018 and are expected to grow over the next 5 years to 122.66B$. These class of smart materials will include sensors, electric/dielectric specific characteristics, shape memory and more.

The bio-implant market (including replacing your tooth!), close to 100B$ in 2018, is expected to reach 161.32B$ by 2024(by far most of these are for human application, although a minority is for use in robotics, for sensing).

Another class of smart materials is the so called 4D materials, having a structure that can modify its shape, memorise the shape and return to it after deformation. These materials are created through 3D printing. It is a market that is just starting in 2019 and it is expected to reach 537.8 M$ by 2025.

An interesting subset of these materials are the so called “shape memory alloy” based on nickel, copper, titanium, aluminium and a few others. Advances in metallurgy and computer analyses and design of alloys has opened the door to an unlimited class of materials, where computer is used to explore the potential characteristics of an alloy before it is manufactured. The market value was around 9 billion in 2018 (3.4 billion in the US) with the largest share taken by Nitinol (a Nickel Titanium alloy used in biomedical implants, aerospace and even in space exploration and most recently NASA has announced the creation of bearings using this alloy) and it is expected to reach 19 billion $ in 2022.






About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.