As technology progresses, so must the materials that constitute it.
There is an ongoing search to design novel new forms of intelligent, active matter that can create its own energy, sense, compute, and communicate, just as the human brain does.
This burgeoning discipline will generate highly specialized materials that can think for themselves without needing sensitive processors or batteries — materials that will benefit anything from medical implants to space computing.
Amir Alavi, Assistant Professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, has been striving to develop this new class of intelligent materials that could be used to build mechanical computing devices.
Alavi was recently awarded the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which supports individuals who are still in the early stages of their career who are potential academic role models in research and education and advance the mission of their department.
The five-year $535,120 grant will cover his project, “Mechanical Metamaterial Electronics: Theory, Design, and Applications.”
The self-powered mechanical metamaterials we’ve developed in previous projects gave us the flexibility to finely tune all aspects of the material. Now, we are imbuing those materials with a level of intelligence, and they will be able to power themselves without a battery, sense the environment, perform calculations, and communicate those findings.
Amir Alavi, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh
Alavi added, “This is a new class of materials that provides a roadmap for a new phase of technological advancement in various engineering and medical fields.”
This project builds upon the research that Alavi worked on in the field of mechanical metamaterial and energy harvesting research. Previous research has led to the development of self-powered, self-sensing concrete, smart implants that can monitor healing and other innovations.
This work will go a step further by introducing the field of mechanical metamaterial electronics — meta-mechanotronics — as a platform for creating intelligent matter capable of processing and communicating information in a closed-loop system in addition to sensing and self-powering capabilities.
A Rugged Material That Can Do It All
Alavi recently published a study in Materials Today that demonstrates digital unit cells that can serve as building blocks for meta-mechanotronics by performing various self-powered computations.
Like the other metamaterials produced by Alavi’s group, these multi-layered cells include built-in nano energy acquiring mechanisms for self-powered information processing.
Furthermore, these new cells can create binary data in response to various mechanical motions. In the future, they will be able to execute computations and also recall and convey data. Such meta-mechanotronic devices could potentially be utilized to securely store data in a rugged material without requiring batteries.
Alavi added, “We are creating a 3D-printed material that is, itself, a computing system. It could be used on so many scales. Manned missions to Mars, for example, require complementary electronics made of materials that can withstand harsh, unforgiving environments, created on the spot for specific purposes. The same material could, at a smaller scale, create a cardiac implant that can diagnose and monitor health conditions where we can’t use bulky electronics.”
The CAREER Award supports Alavi’s efforts to inspire young people to pursue careers in STEM, in addition to his work on meta-mechanotronics.
His novel outreach initiative will employ a “train-the-trainer” strategy to teach ASCE Student Chapter members how to engage thousands of middle and high school students nationally, teaching them about electronic materials, green energy harvesting, and machine learning.
“The field of mechanical metamaterials is still in its infancy, but it is growing incredibly fast. The next generation of engineers needs the tools and knowledge to continue pushing forward these discoveries. The possibilities here are endless,” Alavi concluded.
Zhang, Q., et al. (2023) Meta-mechanotronics for self-powered computation. Materials Today. doi:10.1016/j.mattod.2023.03.026.