Material Prospects

Recent advancements in the development of new materials offer tremendous opportunities for innovation. This is particularly so with smart materials and nanostructured materials that adapt to changes that they “sense” in their environment, such as variations in temperature, humidity, pressure, or light. From substances that change color, fluidity, and shape, to composites that luminesce and generate electricity, these novel materials offer an increasingly broad array of opportunities to contemporary architects and designers.

In the 21st Century, materials are no longer thought of as being static, predictable stock that must be cut, milled, cast, or formed into products and devices, for assembly into architecture. In our age, where the domestication of atoms has led to the design of structures at the molecular scale, researchers are fundamentally altering the properties of matter, and our relationship to it. Now, materials are devices, and they react with behaviors that we have bestowed upon them. But how might these programmable materials drive innovation?

Every month, thousands of research papers are published on advanced materials around the globe. Not all of these material discoveries will make their way into manufactured products and the built environment, but many are promising. Hence, your team’s assignment is to consider how some of these advanced materials might change the behavior, adaptability, and future of architecture. Your 500-word illustrated essay will explain how a particular discovery might serve as a means to create responsive architectural environments that can help to address an issue that your team has identified.

A selection of reports on material discoveries are listed below. Before our class meets on June 30th, choose two other students to work with, and, having formed a three-person team, read these reports.

From this collection of reports, your team is to select only one discovery that excites your imagination. Your team is to describe (in 500 of your own words) and illustrate (with only one original image that your team has created) what the material is and how it might be used to overcome an issue that you have identified.

For this assignment, you might decide to focus on solutions to issues surrounding health, or energy, or climate change, or privacy, or community, or play, or one of any number of issues that architecture can engage. The kind of issue that you identify doesn’t really matter, but in developing and articulating your proposition, you should consider a range of critical questions, including:

  • What is the issue that your design proposition addresses, and why is it of concern?
  • What would you design in order to address this issue?
  • How would your design make use of, and be enabled by, the material discovery you selected?
  • Does it enable us to do something that we haven’t been able to do before?
  • Is the material vital to the proposed design/application?
  • What new challenges or problems might the design/application introduce?

Your illustrated essay is due on July 5, 2022, at 5:00 PM. Upload your submission HERE. Make sure the names of all team members appear on your team paper. Be original. If the work, ideas, and words of others are used in any way, then properly identify and cite their information. The passing off of someone else’s ideas, writing, or work as one’s own is plagiarism; it is a form of academic misconduct that carries a penalty.


For this assignment, your team is to choose only one recent material advancement from the following list (for any of the links, you might have to delete the cache/cookies for their site and reload):

Liquid crystal polymer learns to move and grab objects

Researchers at Aalto University and Tampere University succeeded in conditioning a solid gel so that it melted to become liquid under the influence of light alone. The same researchers have taught a liquid crystal polymer to move, and to stick to an object of a given color.

New material could be used to make a liquid metal robot

A liquid metal lattice that can be crushed but returns to its original shape on heating has been developed by Pu Zhang and colleagues at Binghamton University (State University of New York at Binghamton). The team created the liquid metal lattice using a special mixture of bismuth, indium and tin known as Field’s alloy. This alloy is then encapsulated in a silicone shell membrane.

A multifunctional shape-morphing elastomer with liquid metal inclusions

A soft multifunctional material composed of liquid crystal elastomer embedded with microscale droplets of liquid metal. The material can function like a soft artificial muscle actuator and can be programmed to reversibly change shape when stimulated with heat or electricity.

New polymer repeatedly morphs into different shapes

Researchers from China’s Zhejiang University have developed a new type of polymer that can be caused to revert to multiple different forms on demand. The polymer can form itself into many different shapes, by combining two ingredients, one with elastic deformation properties and one with plastic deformation properties.

Objects can now change colors like a chameleon

A team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created a new system that uses reprogrammable ink to let objects change colors when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) and visible light sources. Dubbed “PhotoChromeleon,” the system uses a mix of photochromic dyes that can be sprayed or painted onto the surface of any object to change its color — a fully reversible process that can be repeated infinitely.

HELIOS (Healable, Low-field Illuminating Optoelectronic Stretchable) Elastomers

The new stretchable material, when used in light-emitting capacitor devices, enables highly visible illumination at much lower operating voltages, and is also resilient to damage due to its self-healing properties.

Mechanoluminescent polymer lights up under stress

An international team of researchers has made polyurethanes that glow a variety of colors when stretched. The material then instantly switches off when relaxed, thanks to mechanically interlocked molecular structures called rotaxanes. The team made blue-, green-, and orange-glowing polymers and combined them to produce a white one.

Acoustic textile can hear sounds

A piezoelectric fiber that enables fabrics to detect sound has been developed. According to the research team, a single strand of this fiber can turn tens of square meters of fabric into a microphone that senses mechanical vibrations created by sound and converts them into an electrical signal.

Janus textile could keep you warm and cool you down

Researchers in Belgium have unveiled the design for a fabric that could keep a person warm when worn one way, while cooling them down if worn inside out.

Liquid flow is steered on surface

Inspired by a conifer leaf, researchers at City University of Hong Kong have developed an artificial surface that causes different liquids to flow in different directions, depending on their surface tension.

Shape memory polymers can lift a body that is 1000 times its own mass

Polymers that visibly change shape when exposed to temperature changes are nothing new, but this new material undergoes a shape change that can be triggered by body heat alone, opening the door for new medical and other applications.

New sponge-like structure converts solar energy into steam

A new material structure developed at MIT generates steam by soaking up the sun. The structure — a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam — is a porous, insulating material structure that floats on water.

Rechargeable Cement-Based Batteries

The substance is a cement-based mixture, with small amounts of short carbon fibers added to increase the conductivity and flexural toughness. Then, embedded within the mixture is a metal-coated carbon fiber mesh – iron for the anode, and nickel for the cathode. After much experimentation, a lab-scale prototype has been made.

Crystalline materials repair themselves, almost like living tissue

Scientists in India have discovered a new class of material which, when fractured, can repair themselves within milliseconds. The highly crystalline materials, when broken into pieces, can self-propel and re-join in the blink of an eye, and repair themselves so precisely that they become indistinguishable from the undisturbed materials.

Smart aerogel turns air into drinking water

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have created a substance that extracts water from air without any external power source. Other scientists have previously devised ways to extract water from air, but their designs had to be powered by sunlight or electricity, and had moving parts that had to be opened and closed.

Scientists invent threads to detect gases when woven

A novel fabrication method produces dyed threads that change color when they detect a variety of gases. The researchers demonstrated that the threads can be read visually, or even more precisely by use of a smartphone camera, to detect changes of color due to analytes as low as 50 parts per million.