What is the difference between a smart & modern material?

Jenny Grief

A lot of people have contacted me about the ‘modern materials’ focus on the AQA pre-release paper with many people asking about the difference between smart and modern materials and if it matters what students use in their designs.

 As so many people are contacting me I thought it might be useful to let you all know my thoughts on this as. First of all I would stress I am not linked to the exam board in any way nor do I have any scientific background in this area so my comments are purely my own thoughts based on my own experience, teaching and research.

It seems to be hard to get a precise and totally definitive definition for either smart or modern materials either in books or on the internet. Just as you think you have found one something else seems to contradict the information!  I think this is partly to do with the fast evolving pace of technology so what is ‘smart’ one day looks like basic technology the next. Also ‘smart’ is often used as a generic word in marketing terms and has become part of a language used to distinguish materials from traditional ones with their more ‘ordinary’ characteristics.  This means that our general understanding of what ‘smart’ means is perhaps different to its definition in precise scientific terms.

A good starting point might be to look at this information sheet produced by AQA for the A level textiles course http://store.aqa.org.uk/qual/gce/pdf/AQA-2560-W-TRB-SMT.PDF . This identifies the difference between modern and smart materials and gives a list. I would recommend you use this list when teaching students particularly if you are doing AQA as in theory they can’t mark what is on their own list as wrong!

The problem however is that this list contradicts information that is widely available from respected sources elsewhere including textbooks from other exam boards as well as other bodies some of which are from the industrial and science worlds (to be fair the book that is endorsed by AQA is consistent with this list). In particular microencapsulation, phosphorescence, and the use of conductive threads and electronics are the ones that seem to be most in dispute as AQA has these in the ‘modern’ list but some others refer to them as ‘smart’. Phosphorescent properties in particular seem to be referenced by most sources I have come across as ‘smart’.

At a basic level there is general agreement that a modern material is one that has been developed by man to have a particular end use or function often high end and technical in its nature. By comparison smart materials are generally defined as being able to respond to conditions and the environment around them thus appearing to ‘think’. Some definitions refer to the need for smart materials to have a ‘memory’ and be able to return to their own shape whereas other only make reference to some smart materials being able to do this. Many sources refer to there being a fine dividing line between smart and modern hence the lack of clarity.

Something that is referred to quite a bit are the terms ‘passive’, ‘active’ and ‘ultra’ when talking about smart materials. The extract below might help with our understanding of this (you have to be a full member to read the whole article but the extract gives enough information for our use). The reference to first and second generation etc. would also potentially suggest the link to the constant changes and developments in this area leading some smart materials to go out of date and becoming less smart over time when compared to newer developments!

Smart textiles are defined as textiles that can sense and react to environmental conditions or stimuli from mechanical, thermal, chemical, electrical or magnetic sources. According to functional activities, smart textiles can be classified in three broad categories; passive, active and ultra smart textiles[1]. Passive smart textiles are the first generations of smart textiles, which can only sense the environmental conditions or stimulus. Active smart textiles are the second generation of smart textiles, which has both actuators and sensors. Active smart textiles are shape memory, chameleonic, water-resistant and vapour permeable (hydrophilic/non porous), heat storage, thermo regulated, vapour absorbing, heat evolving fabric and electrically heated suits. Ultra smart textiles are the third generation of smart textiles, which can sense, react and adopt themselves to environmental conditions or stimuli

The other point I would make is that I have marked at GCSE level for AQA in the past and know that often we as teachers get very bogged down in the tiny details trying to read more into a few words on the pre-release paper than is perhaps intended (thankfully they have stopped including the pictures as these were terrible for sending people off on the wrong tangent!). As I said before I would recommend you bear in mind the AQA list I have referred to earlier particularly in written answers where definitions and examples are required. In your queries to me many of you have mentioned the design question and for this creativity is a key element in grading answers so there is more flexibility when student responses are marked. Here I would recommend that students choose several smart and modern materials to use for the design question so all bases are covered but also because it will give them a more creative response.

I hope this helps a little and would stress again that this is all my own opinion!  If anyone has anything to add or has had a clear response from the exam board on this please let me know.


The jacket in the image uses modern materials that have been engineered to perform in extreme conditions. The outer skin is made from Gore-Tex fabric and the lining is made from Coolmax. Both are breathable fabrics which wick moisture away from the skin but which keep out rain. The jacket also has reflective strips both as a design and safety feature.

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