Willow over water

‘Animate’ materials inspired by life could support sustainable future

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A Royal Society report has assessed the potential for materials and systems which can adapt to their surroundings – particularly those inspired by living things – to reap environmental benefits.

Animate materials are synthetic materials which adapt to their environment to promote, shift and maintain their function, with varying levels of autonomy.

Self-healing paints more resistant to wear and tear than conventional paints are already found on the market, while the asphalt mixture used in roads contains a viscous black liquid that can flow into small cracks to repair minor damage.

Animate materials are being researched in many areas, such as self-healing soft robotics and modified sperm cells or bacteria to deliver drugs directly to a target. However, the field of animate materials is still at an early stage of development.

Animate materials could lead to a range of innovations, the report said, such as clothing which adapts to a person’s body temperature; devices which harvest their energy from ambient sources such as Wi-Fi signals and temperature gradients; electronics which are programmed to separate into their basic components at the end of their lifetime, for ease of reuse and recycling; and microscopic machines for transporting drugs, collecting data, and repairing damage.

Focusing on developing biologically-inspired animate materials could extend the lifespan of electronic devices and infrastructure, unlocking environmental benefits.

For instance, “living buildings” inspired by trees could become an active part of local ecosystems, harvesting carbon dioxide to purify water and heal themselves. Robotic systems which are not centrally controlled but instead have a degree of intelligence in their fabric, resembling the swarming behaviour of some insects and birds, could perform tasks such as search and rescue.

“Because the kit that’s entered our homes and lives is so complex, we’re all helpless when it breaks,” said UCL’s Professor Mark Miodownik, co-author of the report. “Phones are an obvious example, but you can see it across our society. Too often one bit goes wrong and the whole thing is scuppered. Biology is much more robust; it adapts and self-repairs.

“One of the messages of the report is that we should ensure that sustainability and circularity is baked in at every step. While animate adaptive materials could improve longevity, we also need to think about where we source raw materials and their eventual disposal or reuse when that lifespan is up.”

The Royal Society report proposes a basic roadmap for realising this technology. It says that the research needed to drive this is deeply blue skies and interdisciplinary; this could be well-aligned with the UK government’s ambitions to stimulate high-risk, high-reward research. It also recommends that sustainability and circularity is prioritised from the outset.

The Royal Society also said that the public must be engaged with this field of research in order to build pubic trust and minimise the risk of animate materials being misconceived. It called on the public to submit potential ideas which could deliver societal benefits.

“What this report does, for the first time, is stand back and look at the breadth of possibilities animate materials offer us from the built environment to medical applications,” said the University of St Andrews’ Professor Russell Morris, co-chair of the report.

“We are likely to see an increase in the use of these types of materials by 2050, so now is the time to think about good practice and the opportunities and risks that ma arise, how business models need to change to prioritise sustainability, and how we involve the public so we can bring them with us on this journey.”

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