Biologically-inspired materials, able to grow and adapt to their environment, could extend the lifespan of electronic devices, medical implants and infrastructure, and unlock an array of environmental benefits.
The Royal Society's report on animate materials – human-made materials that emulate the properties of living systems – outlines the potential of this technology to deliver major change in sectors from infrastructure to medicine and clothing. The report is the second in a series of Perspectives, the first focusing on neural interfaces.
Animate materials could signal a future in which roads can self-heal, tiny robotic molecules can assemble themselves into household objects and living buildings can harvest carbon dioxide to generate power and purified water. The ability of animate materials to autonomously react to their environment could improve the sustainability of the materials we use day to day and aid the transition to a more circular economy.
The report sets out a roadmap to make this technology a reality, including by encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration to share expertise and identify opportunities, as well as ensuring that sustainability and circularity is prioritised at the outset to support a greener future.
Explore the progression of animate materials, from familiar materials to future possibilities, in our interactive timeline.
Catch up on our British Science Week event, ‘Building the future: animate materials’, to learn more about what a future with animate materials could look like.
See our Animate Materials resources for teachers.
Have your say
What animate materials do you think could or should exist in the future? Submit your ideas to contribute to our “library of future materials”. Find out more.
Introduction to animate materials
What are animate materials?
Animate materials can be defined as those that are sensitive to their environment and able to adapt to it in a number of ways to better fulfil their function. The report suggests three characteristics of future animate materials:
- Active in that they can change their properties or perform actions, often by taking energy, material or nutrients from the environment
- Adaptive in sensing changes in their environment and responding
- Autonomous in being able to initiate a response without being controlled
Some forms of animate materials already exist in our daily lives. For instance, self-healing paints are already commercially available, and the asphalt mixture used in roads contains a viscous black liquid that can flow into small cracks in the material, repairing minor damage. However, the field is still at a very early stage of evolution.
What can we do to maximise the potential of animate materials?
- Ensure that sustainability and circularity is built in at every step
- Support collaboration between across disciplines and scales to share data and identify opportunities and challenges to support a greener future
- Engage with the public at the outset, by sharing ideas, concerns and imaginative futures
The Animacy Continuum