Structural electronics (SE) is one of the most important technological developments of this century. It forms a key part of the dream, formulated decades ago, of computing disappearing into the fabric of society. It also addresses, in a particularly elegant manner, the dream of Edison in 1880 that electricity should be made where it is needed. SE is often biomimetic – it usefully imitates nature in ways not previously feasible. It is a rapidly growing multi-billion dollar business.
Structural electronics involves electronic and/or electrical components and circuits that act as load-bearing, protective structures, replacing dumb structures such as vehicle bodies or conformally placed upon them. It is of huge interest to the aerospace industry which is usually the first adopter, the automotive industry and in civil engineering both with compelling needs but its reach is much broader even than this. Electric cars badly need longer range and more space for the money and, in civil engineering, corrosion of reinforced concrete structures and tighter requirements for all structures, including early warning of problems, are among the market drivers for structural electronics.
The common factor is that both load bearing and smart skin formats occupy only unwanted space. The electronics and electrics effectively have no volume. More speculatively, electronics and electrics injected into unused voids in vehicle bodies, buildings etc., say as aerogel, could also provide this benefit without necessarily being load bearing but possibly providing other benefits such as heat insulation. Some present and future applications of structural electronics are morphing aircraft using shape memory alloys, car with printed organic light emitting diode OLED lighting on outside and inside of roof and printed photovoltaics over the outside generating electricity supercapacitor skin on an electric car replacing the traction battery as energy storage, smart skin as a nervous system for an aircraft and solar boats and aircraft running on sunshine alone. In London, a piezoelectric smart dance floor generates electricity and smart bridges across the world have sensors and more embedded in their concrete, all forms of structural electronics as it is increasingly the way to go.
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