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Smart Materials

Why is Materials Science so Awesome?

Materials science is all around us. Materials scientists design jet engines used in aeroplanes, build nuclear reactors, design implants to replace our joints, bones and teeth, as well as invent lightweight strong materials for tennis racquets and musical instruments.

Imagine if the clothes you wear are made from smart fabrics, which can regulate temperatures -keeping you dry and cool when running a marathon, and keeping you warm on rainy winter days. This is possible with the advent of smart materials, which are materials that can respond to external stimuli such as temperature, stress, moisture, light, or electric field. This technology can be incorporated into your clothes via conductive fibres or additive manufacturing techniques.

Smart materials are everywhere. Think about butterflies and seashells -why are they so colourful? What makes some of them red, while others blue, yellow, or green? This has to do with the microstructure, which are the very small-scale structure of a material. Materials scientists use microscopes to analyse the microstructure of materials. In the case of butterfly wings, small scales behave as diffraction gratings, diffracting light waves to produce a certain colour. Depending on how the scales are arranged, different wavelengths of light are diffracted, therefore producing different colours!


Microstructure – the very small-scale structure of a material.

Smart materials – materials that can respond to external stimuli such as temperature, stress, moisture, light, or electric field.

Additive manufacturing – the process of building a three-dimensional object by adding layer-upon-layer of material.

Diffraction – the spreading out of waves as they pass through an aperture (a hole) or around objects.



1) Dr Eleonora D’Elia (Imperial College London) introduces Materials Science and why it is such a varied (and accessible) subject.

2) Examples

  • Learn about how morpho butterflies get their incredible iridescent blue colouring without using coloured pigments, self healing materials, shape memory alloys and sensing materials here – Smart Materials 1 – Examples

Further information for Teachers and Families

i) Eleonora’s video

ii) Explainers

Short, printable pdfs containing information on the following smart materials including where to get them, how to use them and ideas for in class / home activites:

Other awesome content (external links)

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