Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada
Government of Canada

Common menu bar links

Smart metal for lighter vehicles

Smarter Alloys co-founders Ibraheem Khan and Norman Zhou from the University of Waterloo with a simple yet very smart wire. ©AUTO21

A Toronto start-up is helping automakers produce lighter vehicles that meet tougher emission standards in Canada and the U.S.

Founded on a discovery supported through the AUTO21 NCE, Smarter Alloys has hit the market with a new type of shape memory alloy (SMAs) that can replace electric actuators – those 200 or so specialized motors in a vehicle that control everything from door locks and windshield wipers to more complex powertrains.

"People have tried for years to replace these heavy, energy-consuming motors with lightweight shape memory alloys," says Ibraheem Khan, who made the discovery while completing his PhD under the supervision of Norman Zhou, an AUTO21 researcher at the University of Waterloo.

SMAs – typically made of nickel-titanium or copper-aluminum-nickel – are smart materials that can change their shape, strength, and/or stiffness when activated by heat, stress, a magnetic field or electrical voltage. They "remember" their original shape and return to it when activated. SMAs have been used since the 1970s but until now have been limited to remembering just one shape, such as on and off positions.

"Until our invention, no one was able to program a shape memory alloy to mimic more complex actuators, particularly for the automotive and aerospace sectors," explains Khan.

Smarter Alloys’ patented process can embed multiple memories by applying heat or an electric current to a localized area as small as a few microns in width, with different temperatures applied to multiple zones. The resulting elastic-like material, called Multiple Memory Material (MMM), acts like a machine, capable of bending into multiple shapes and then returning to its original form. Replacing a complex actuator with a single piece of material can increase a product’s efficiency, functionality and reliability, while simultaneously decreasing size and weight.

For example, an actuator weighs about 76 grams and has a lifespan of 50,000 operations. Khan said MMM is "phenomenally lighter," weighing one gram, and boasts a lifespan of more than 200,000 cycles.

In 2010, Khan and Zhou co-founded Smarter Alloys to commercialize their discovery, specifically in the automotive, medical and aerospace industries. Zhou, whose specialty is welding research, says this was a case of a fundamental science discovery turning out to have very real-world applications.

"This research began in 2007 with an NSERC discovery grant looking at welding processes of advanced materials," says Zhou. "But I’m in the engineering faculty so we’re always looking for the practical applications of our research. It’s not enough to know how, you also need to know why, and that means understanding the underlying physics and chemistry."

Smarter Alloys currently employs seven people, including some former AUTO21 student researchers. The company has already secured joint development agreements with multi-national tier one and two automotive companies and orthodontic arch wire suppliers.

"We’re the only ones who have been able to develop this technology and I don’t think that would have happened without AUTO21," says Khan. "They supported my summer work as an undergrad at University of Toronto, as well as my master’s project and part of my Ph.D."