A new class of nanomaterials, called self-aware metamaterials, could supposedly generate their power and sense changes in their environment - ushering the next material of fabricated living structures.

The new self-aware metamaterials could serve various purposes, including the fabrication of small nanomaterials for medical implants. With its capabilities, these could sense and monitor changes in their environment, leading to immense savings in cost and health.

Researchers from the Intelligent Structural Monitoring and Response Testing (iSMaRT) Laboratory at Pennsylvania's University of Pittsburg Swanson School of Engineering have led a new effort on the subject. They were able to design these new nanomaterials that are both sensors and nanogenerators - game-changers in the field of multifunctional material technology.

Angioplasty Stent
(Photo: BruceBlaus via Wikimedia Commons)
An angioplasty stent, installed in a coronary artery. New nanomaterials could lead to smart heart stents that monitor blood flow and the risks of arteries narrowing down.

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A New Class of Nanomaterials

The new report "Multifunctional meta-tribomaterial nanogenerators for energy harvesting and active sensing," appearing in the latest Nano Energy, reveals details of a new material formally called a "self-aware composite mechanical metamaterial (SCMM)." It could record and relay information about the pressure and stresses applied on the surface of its structure. 

However, the most innovative part of the novel nanomaterials, according to the researchers, is their scalability. The self-aware metamaterials could work either in the nanoscale and the macroscale - they only need to adjust the materials' design geometry.

"There is no doubt that the next generation materials need to be multifunctional, adaptive and tunable," says Amir Alavi, civil and environmental engineering and bioengineering assistant professor, in a statement as reported by the University of Pittsburgh. He adds that these characteristics are not achievable with natural materials, stressing the need for hybrid or composite material systems where each layer contributes to the material's overall functionality. With the self-aware metamaterial systems that the iSMaRT team has invented, these features are achieved with a combination of advanced nanomaterials and energy harvesting technologies at the multiscale. These new materials could be used, for example, as a medical stent, or a new shock absorber, or even an airplane wing.

Additionally, the new self-aware metamaterials were made possible with a novel approach to creating sensors and nanogenerator systems. Conventional self-sensing materials usually utilize composites based on carbon as a sensor module, such as self-sensing concrete that uses carbon fiber-based materials. For the new nanomaterials, these are designed such that upon application of pressure, contact-electrification happens between conductive and dielectric layers, generating an electric charge that could also be "read" by the material.

Changing the Multifunctional Material Tech Industry

"We believe this invention is a game changer in metamaterial science where multifunctionality is now gaining a lot of traction," says lead author Kaveh Barri, who is also a doctoral student in the iSMaRT lab, in the same Pittsburgh news release. He explains that while a significant part of the studies is focused on simply exploring mechanical properties, their team takes it a step further by looking into the possibilities of self-charging and self-sensing.

Researchers have already created different multiple prototype designs for different purposes, including those for civil, aerospace, and biomedical applications. One application on a smaller scale is a heart stent that could monitor blood flow and even proactively detect restenosis or the narrowing down of an artery.


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