Monday, 18 July 2016

Shape-Morphing with Smart Materials Promises Hope for Assistive Technology

Many of us understand the impact physical disability can have on an individual’s life, don’t we?Perhaps many of us have a firsthand experience with some sort of disability. In the U.K., over 1000 people suffer from spinal cord injury every year, according to Mark C Ransley a researcher and innovator at UCL. According to the research analysts at Allied Market Research assessing the size and share of the smart materials market, more than 15,500 stroke cases are reported every year in U.K. Loss of motor ability is the most tragic condition found in the aging population and the smart materials market has to prepare itself for the reality over the coming years. Besides elders, the younger population will also depend on assistive technology. 

Smart material market- allied market research

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The origin of assisted technology can be traced back to 5000 BC, where the use of wheelchair and crunches were common. However, recent discoveries in the material science are making things more lightweight as well as comfortable. The first ever radical approach in material science was the discovery of the robotic exoskeleton. These machines were developed to assist people perform manual labor, repetitive tasks, and strenuous chores. There are several reason why exoskeleton failed to attract many investors. They were noisy, expensive, and inaccurate. Moreover, the power requirements for the product was very high.  Besides, the rigid mechanical frames have posed limitations for people with imparities. 

Thus, researchers have adopted a completely different radical approach when it comes to the smart materials market. They believe that a transition from assisted robotic technology into the whole new world of assistive material holds answers to some important questions. The smart materials being developed today can electronically change their texture, shape, and stiffness. So wearable robots will be soon replaced by a smart wearable suit and amplify your movement by the virtue of the contraction and stiffening abilities of the material. This would mean that elders can let go off their walking stick as the material will carry the weight for you. 

Some of the past discoveries in the smart materials market are Dielectric Elastomer, Carbon Nanotube Aerogel, and the Nylon Finishing Line Muscle. The Dielectric Elastomer is cheap, silent, and lightweight. But, the material requires about 1,000 volts, which obstructs the future application of the material. Carbon nanotube aerogel is unable to win the hearts of many investors due to its requirement for high volt. Nylon finishing line muscle stood a great chance but it too relies on heat. Scientists were in search of the solution that was useful but did not rely of high volt or heat. They were able to find a perfect solution now popular as V2O5 and Polypirral. Both apply electric potential to move the ions around. Thus, when these ions move the material swells in one place and shrinks in the other. This helps in the creation of bimorphswhen voltage is applied. While the V2O5 is slow moving but extremely strong, the Polypirral is quick yet fragile. Both materials need low voltage compared to the products discussed above. Therefore, researchers are trying to combine both into one composite to get the best of both the worlds. 

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