Have you heard of “smart materials?” After reading about them in Chemistry:  Getting a Big Reaction by Simon Basher and Dan Green (see review at Wrapped in Foil), I had to find out more. chemistry-basher

The term “smart materials” seems rather vague, but in chemistry and physics it has a distinct meaning. Smart materials are a relatively newly-discovered (mostly in the last 30 years) set of substances that are getting a lot of attention because of their astonishing abilities to react to the environment.

Smart materials may react to changes in:

  • temperature
  • light levels or ultraviolet levels
  • pH
  • pressure
  • voltage, etc.

in amazing ways.


1. Shape-memory alloys are mixes of metals with the ability to be bent and stretched out of shape and then return to a coil when heated.

This Steve Spangle video shows an example of a nickel-titanium alloy:

Does anyone know where you can buy some of this?

Steve Spangler has a memory metal experiment, but I couldn’t find it listed as a product.

2. Shape-memory polymers are plastics that also change shape when exposed to heated water.

Check out this sample from… well, you will know where it is from if you watch the video. 🙂

3. Thermochromic paint contains pigments that change color at different temperatures.

You can sometimes find plastic toys that are meant to be put into the bathtub. If the water is too hot, the toys will let you know because they change color. In the future your walls may change color throughout the day with changes in temperature.

4. Photochromic paint or pigments change color at different light levels.

In this video you will see some beads that indicate whether you are being exposed to UV light or not.

Activity suggestions and more information about Solar -UV Beads and how they work.

You can find Solar or UV-sensitive beads from a number of different retailers, including Amazon (Ad is affiliate link to Amazon).

5. Electrochromic materials in LCD’s that are voltage sensitive and change the color of the screen.

Smart materials are already being used in eyeglass frames that return to shape after being smashed, and in certain dental appliances. Can you imagine such futuristic applications as repairing dents in your fender by applying heat? How about taking wrinkles out of clothes with the warmth of a hair dryer, as seen in this video?

Aren’t smart materials extremely cool? If you have any sources of smart materials and/or activity ideas to share, please let me know.