Structural electronics (SE) is one of the most important emerging technologies this century. It is all about multi-functionality; dumb structural components that traditionally provided mechanical stability are now bestowed with electronic and electric functionality – aircraft fuselage, car body, even plastic coating on a cable and the humble printed circuit board.
These functional structures can be energy harvesters, energy storage devices, switches, antennas, sensors and more. This allows for more design freedom as bulkier electronic components get a reduced footprint, reliable function at lower cost and with little weight gain to the overall system. In the view of all the major solar power people – from Japan to the USA, that analysts IDTechEx have interviewed recently – one of the first applications of SE envisaged is building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV).
This mainly replaces roofing and curtain walling but sometimes windows. For new buildings, it will grow much faster than the number being erected; this is due to increased adoption. This particular market sector will reach $37 billion in 2025 according to the new IDTechEx report "Structural Electronics 2015-2025: Applications, Technologies, Forecasts**".
With BIPV, there is quicker payback. Instead of being an expensive retrofit to a building, photovoltaics vanishes because it becomes such things as the solar tile that looks like a regular tile and a fully transparent solar window.
"It is one of the most significant technological advances of this century" says Dr Peter Harrop in charge of the IDTechEx team that did the research. "From the slow and painful introduction of flexible PV will later come PV film, with laminar batteries or supercapacitors on the back, transparent PV film and the ability to harvest infrared and ultra-violet light. Then what is applied to a car, bus or boat will have a lot in common with what is applied to a building, particularly if it is stretchable and conformal."
Next in size comes the emerging market for SE in aerospace, particularly as part of the fuselage of aircraft, such as complex antennas and sensors doubling as lightning conductors. Aerospace may indeed be the most profitable sector in the more distant future. IDTechEx sees demand for two other categories coming next – automotive/rail and civil engineering – including bridges, tunnels, dams and applications in buildings beyond photovoltaics.
For example, reinforced concrete structures the world over are rusting and weakening earlier than intended and massive reconstruction programs largely rebuild them. In Japan, bridge uprights have carbon fibre spun round them and sealed in resin, embedding many sensors for detection of weakening, whether from decay or earthquakes. There is work on the electric car's body becoming a supercapacitor
. ** "Structural Electronics 2015-2025: Applications, Technologies, Forecasts" www.IDTechEx.com/structural.