Smart materials, which contain properties that react to changes in their environment, have a broad array of applications within the aerospace and defense industries. Those two sectors will be key to driving the global market for smart materials to $98.2 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research.

However, it’s a classic chicken-or-egg scenario when it comes to developing these new materials. Demand will be the driver of higher-level, more intelligent substances. To fund development, though, businesses and research firms want better visibility into demand.

The range of applications looks promising. Smart materials can detect changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity content, pH level, electric field, magnetic field, light intensity and bio-chemical reactions. Smart materials are reliable and cost-effective. The rising popularity of piezoelectric materials among end-users is one of the critical factors in the growth of the smart materials industry in recent years.

mechanicalen A printed flexible sheet of piezoelectric smart material (Source: H. Cui of the Zheng Lab)

Piezoelectric materials are already being used in smart weapons systems, and the aeronautical and aerospace industries are looking at smart materials for better overall performance levels and fuel efficiency. The Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, uses smart actuators. Smart materials can revolutionize the future of weapons manufacturing, and NASA is looking to these substances to detect and prevent corrosion; expand the life of components and structures; and reduce inspection, maintenance, and repair costs.

“In the future, as manufacturing advances, so will the research, development and manufacturing of new materials,” wrote Advanced Polymer Monitoring Technologies (APMT) CEO Alex Reed for IndustryWeek. “These materials, many polymer based, will drive next generation consumer and industrial products. Just as the manufacturing processes are engineered to be ‘smart,’ materials themselves are undergoing a similar transition to be ‘smart,’ more customized and more application specific.”

Piezoelectric materials are being used in devices developed for their efficiency and energy-savings. Numerous initiatives by local governments and private bodies, to promote the adoption of non-fossil-fuel energy resources, have propelled the demand for smart materials such as piezoelectric devices in the market.

Smart materials are in varying stages of development. A few factors have been holding the market back, said Grand View. An absence of high-end expertise during the design and manufacturing of smart systems is negatively impacting growth of the market. Additionally, limited commercial viability of the devices coupled with lack of awareness among end-users are restricting development.

Organizations such as NASA work with promising developers to advance technologies such as smart materials. NASA’s Technology Transfer Program is looking for partners to improve shape memory alloys; smart coatings; puncture-healing engineered polymer blends; multilayer electroactive polymer composite material comprising carbon nanotubes; and to develop related production technologies. NASA's Technology Transfer Program ensures that innovations developed for space exploration and discovery are made available to the public.

Another booster, said Grand View, are the increasing defense budgets of several countries. Smart materials can be used for cyber warfare, intelligence tactics, and precision strike capabilities. North America and Europe have shown the most growth in smart materials development due in large part to substantial government funding. Additionally, both regions have a well-established industrial infrastructure.

The Asia-Pacific region is expected to grow the fastest, however. Countries such as India, China, and Singapore are leading the Asia-Pacific market with favorable governmental policies; an increase in aerospace and defense spending; the healthcare, automotive, and building and construction sectors; and significant investment by industry players interested in smart materials. These include APC International Limited, Harris Co., CeramTec Group, Kyocera Co., TDK Co., and CTS Co.

Globally, the smart materials industry is predicted to grow at CAGR of 13.5 percent through 2025.