The smart coatings industry is now facing some issues that seemed almost unfathomable up until recently. The sudden decline in oil prices has not only taken the steam out its energy efficiency story but threatens to curb the resurgent green tech sector where self-healing and self-cleaning coatings had viable applications. Throw in a slowing global economy and you get the sense that the industry needs to look at other growth options.
NanoMarkets believes that the emergent Internet-of-Things is an area that might drive demand for the types of smart and highly functional coatings that generate the high value product sales.
A Role for Smart Coatings in the IoT?
The idea behind the IoT is that buildings, appliances, machines and objects more generally will become more responsive to human needs in both personal and professional environments. The goal here is the same one that has motivated automation since the beginning; to free up time, so that people can do what they would rather be doing.
At the present time, the IoT is usually presented as consisting of networks of Internet-connected sensors, and multiprocessing units (MPUs). Smart materials such as coatings are hardly mentioned in current IoT literature. Nonetheless, NanoMarkets believes that smart coatings in the IoT would be a perfect fit. For example, self-cleaning and self-repairing coatings couldn’t be better suited to the IoT philosophy; what could be more convenient and save more time than surfaces that clean and repair themselves? And that is something that sensors in the usual meaning of the word can’t do.
The way NanoMarkets sees it, however, smart coatings may do more than just complement sensors in the IoT. They can compete with IoT sensors directly since some stimuli-responsive coatings can act directly as a sensor. A smart coating that is also a sensor would likely be a more cost effective way to create a wide-area sensing panel than a large array of sensing devices. Wide-area sensing is, again, a functionality that is intrinsic to the IoT philosophy.
Smart Coatings for the IoT: What is Needed?
NanoMarkets believes that by latching onto the current IoT meme, smart coatings firms will be able to generate new revenues from emerging IoT opportunities. At the very least, they will be able to drum up new interest in their products, based on the current buzz around IoT; much like what they did with all that enthusiasm around “sustainable energy” in the recent past.
However, we also think that smart coatings will need to exhibit some special characteristics if they are to become a major part of the IoT meme and that this will inspire important new R&D, products and even a few new startups.
Internet connectivity: In order to fit in with IoT, a smart coating needs to be able to send signals to the Internet. This means that – directly or indirectly – the coating must be able to send an electrical response that matches the stimuli it is sensing or how the coating is responding to these stimuli.
Active versus passive coatings: The thinking behind IoT suggests to us that active smart coatings may be more suitable than passive ones. IoT, although not well defined, seems to require a fairly high level of “intelligence,” and this can best be provided for by an active coating that can be controlled with an electric current; switched on, switched off and adjusted through a range of states.
Passive smart coatings would seem to have a lesser role in the IoT, but this does not mean no role at all. They may find specialist applications or serve where cost is more of a consideration than high levels of performance.
Self-healing and self-cleaning materials: Self-cleaning and self-healing coatings have been commercially available for many years, but when one digs into the actual performance of such coatings they aren’t much to write home about.
Commercial self-healing coatings are often liquids or gels that cover up scratches and have an effective lifetime of a few years. Similarly, self-cleaning glass has been in use in residential buildings for quite a number of years now, but this has never been able to break out of the low-performance residential windows market, because again, it doesn’t last that long.
As already noted, self-cleaning and self-cleaning coatings fit in well with IoT. And they are also at the forefront of smart coating R&D. NanoMarkets expects that some of this work will take a specifically IoT turn. For example, in the self-healing area, consider the use of shape memory to provide new characteristics to self-repair. Or stimuli-responsive carbon nanotube and polymers that are the basis for highly functional wide-area sensors.
Such R&D could lead to IoT-related coatings, but with greater functionality than any of today’s smart coating functionality. Thus, potentially at least, one might have self-healing coating would actually self-heal, that is repair itself in the literal sense of the word, not be just an anti-scratch coating. NanoMarkets also envisages a self-cleaning glass would last as long as an IGU.
“Direct” versus “indirect” product directions: NanoMarkets believes that R&D directions in smart coatings can be classified into two kinds; “direct” and “indirect.”
Direct R&D is the work that results in exciting new kinds of functionality that directlyimpact the marketplace– the kinds of functionality that we have described above for IoT applications. Some direct R&D consists in improving on what has already succeeded in the marketplace – new antimicrobials based on (say) organosilane or block copolymers, for example. But other external R&D seems ready to produce products that will in a sense be genuinely new to the market.
By contrast indirect R&D leads to enabling materials that make it easier to develop smart coatings include those tied to the IoT. What we are talking about here are performance additives for coating formulations, new kinds of binders and pigments, smart fillers for coatings, and hybrid/composite coatings. This kind of R&D doesn’t produce novel kinds of smart coatings. It just makes it easier to produce those novel coatings.
These suggestions about the future of smart coatings may seem bullish to some. However, we are not claiming that they are inevitable, just a likely direction where the smart coatings firms can most likely make some money over the next decade.
In the IoT area, smart coatings will certainly experience competition. As already noted, arrays of individual sensors are certainly a close substitute for some smart-coated substrates, although sensor arrays may be more expensive than coatings. And smart coatings have an even closer competitor in the form of smart surfaces, which can achieve many of the same effects as smart coatings, but through nano-patterning surfaces. Smart surfaces are only beginning to be commercialized and smart coatings have a head start.
So as NanoMarkets sees things, the current buzz around IoT may open entirely new opportunities for the smart coatings business.