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Paving the Way for Truly Intelligent Materials

Amir Alavi Receives $535K NSF CAREER Award to Create “Metamaterials” that “Think” for Themselves

Intelligent Meta-mechanotronics

As technology evolves, so must the materials that comprise it.

There is an unceasing quest to create new forms of intelligent, active matter that can create its own energy, sense, compute, and communicate, much like the human brain does. This emerging field will create very specialized materials that can actually think for themselves without the need for delicate processors or batteries—materials that will be useful for everything from medical implants to space computing.

Amir-AlaviAmir Alavi, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, has been working to engineer this new class of intelligent materials that can create the foundation for mechanical computing systems. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded Alavi the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, which supports early-career faculty who are potential academic role models in research and education and advance the mission of their department.

The five-year, $535,120 award will fund 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’re 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,” said Alavi. “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 on Alavi’s years of mechanical metamaterial and energy harvesting research. Previous research has introduced self-powered, self-sensing concrete; smart implants that can monitor healing; and more. This work will take that a step further, introducing the field of mechanical metamaterial electronics—meta-mechanotronics—that will serve as a platform for creating intelligent matter that can also process and communicate information in a closed-loop system in addition to sensing and self-powering functionalities.

Intelligent Meta-mechanotronics

A Rugged Material that Can Do It All

Proving the concept, Alavi recently published a paper in Materials Today (DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2023.03.026)  that demonstrates digital unit cells that can serve as building blocks for meta-mechanotronics by performing various self-powered computations. Like the other metamaterials Alavi’s lab has designed, these multi-layered cells are equipped with built-in nano energy harvesting mechanisms for self-powered information processing.

Additionally, these new cells can also generate binary data under different mechanical motions, and in the future, they will be able to do calculations and remember and communicate data. Such meta-mechanotronic devices could even be used to securely store data in a rugged material without the need for batteries.

“We’re creating a 3D-printed material that is, itself, a computing system,” said Alavi. “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.” 

In addition to funding his work on meta-mechanotronics, the CAREER Award funds Alavi’s efforts to encourage young people in STEM. His innovative outreach program will use a “train-the-trainer” model 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’s growing incredibly fast,” said Alavi. “The next generation of engineers needs the tools and knowledge to continue pushing forward these discoveries. The possibilities here are endless.”