The common applications where electro-active polymers are used include batteries, actuators, sensors, capacitors, solar cells, EMI & ESD shielding, electrostatic paintable plastics, corrosion-resistant coatings and organic light emitting diodes. EAPs are also used in the field of robotics in the development of artificial muscles. The EAP market is highly lucrative for polymer and semiconductor manufacturers, though the manufacturers would require high initial investment to shift from silicon to polymers. As per Markets and Markets, there are various forces which influence the electro-active polymers market. Cost is the most important factor influencing the electro-active polymers market growth. The use of polymers in robotics and luminescent applications is more cost-effective than the use of metals and semiconductor materials. The use of electro-active polymers in the field of biomimetics and biomedicine could help address the global problem of increasing healthcare costs. In the field of biomimetics, EAPs are fabricated to resemble human muscles, and thus have potential applications in developing bio-prosthetics for the physically challenged. EAP they can potentially be used to mimic the movements of living creatures.
The conductive plastics segment forms the largest submarket of the overall electro-active polymers market with an expected US$2.6 bln by 2017, at a CAGR of 6.1% from 2012 to 2017, as per MarketsandMarkets. The high market size of conductive plastics is due to its extensive use in electrostatic discharge and electromagnetic interference protection. Intensive R&D efforts, early product commercialization, and the high absorption rate of electronic products made North America the dominant market for electro-active polymer. The region held a 65% share of the global electro-active polymers product market, followed by Europe with a 22% share in 2011.
ICP (Inherently Conductive Polymer) production is currently small in the overall electro-active polymer market but it is the fastest growing market in future. At present it accounts for only 12% of the total electro-active polymer market, revenue wise, but this share is estimated to increase to 20% by 2017. North America region is the largest market for electro-active polymers with 65% of the global electro-active polymer market revenue share in 2011 and is estimated to reach US$2.2 bln by 2017. Europe is the second largest consumer followed by North America. Some of the major factors driving the global market for electroactive polymers include growing need for low cost and light weight materials in the electronics market. However, the market is inhibited by volatile pricing. Asia Pacific with two of the fastest growing economies in the world, China and India, is expected to drive the global market for electroactive polymers in the near future amid rapid industrialization.
An electroactive polymer (EAP) is a polymer that exhibits a mechanical response – such as stretching, contracting, or bending, for example – in response to an electric field, or a polymer that produces energy in response to a mechanical stress, as per iRAP. The actuator property of some EAPs has been attractive for a broad range of potential applications, including but not limited to robotic arms, grippers, loudspeakers, active diaphragms, dust wipers, heel strikers (dental) and numerous automotive applications. There are also numerous applications within the medical field, including but not limited to artificial muscles, synthetic limbs or prostheses, wound pumps, active compressing socks, and catheter or other implantable medical device steering elements. EAP materials have high energy density, rapid response time, customizability (shape and performance characteristics), compactness, easy controllability, low power consumption, high force output and deflections/amount of motion, natural stiffness, combined sensing and actuation functions, relatively low raw materials costs, and relatively inexpensive manufacturing costs. Electroactive ceramic actuators (for example, piezoelectric and electro-strictive) are effective, compact actuation materials, and they are used to replace electromagnetic motors. While these materials are capable of delivering large forces, they produce a relatively small displacement, on the order of magnitude of a fraction of a percent. Since the beginning of the 1990s, new EAP materials have emerged that exhibit large strains, and they have led to a paradigm shift because of their capabilities. The unique properties of these materials are highly attractive for bio-mimetic applications such as biologically inspired intelligent robots. Increasingly, engineers are able to develop EAP-actuated mechanisms that were previously imaginable only in science fiction. Electric motors tend to be too weak, while hydraulics and pneumatics are too heavy for use in robotics or prosthetics. In comparison, EAPs are lightweight, quiet and capable of energy densities similar to biological muscles. In ionic EAPs, actuation is caused by the displacement of ions inside the polymer. Only a few volts are needed for actuation, but the ionic flow implies a higher electrical power needed for actuation, and energy is needed to keep the actuator at a given position. Examples of EAPS in this area are dielectric elastomers, polymers, ionic polymer metal composites (IPMCs), conductive polymers and responsive gels. An EAP actuator not only is completely different from conventional electromechanical devices, but also separates itself from other high-tech approaches that are based on piezoelectric materials or shape-memory alloys by providing a significantly more power-dense package and, in many instances, a smaller footprint. Electro-active polymer technology could potentially replace common motion-generating mechanisms in positioning, valve control, pump and sensor applications, where designers are seeking quieter, power efficient devices to replace cumbersome conventional electric motors and drive trains. As per iRAP, markets for EAP devices are strongly driven by the expanding medical market, E-textiles and robotics, with its demand for a novel class of electrically controlled actuators based on polymer materials. Almost any laboratory for molecular biology must be equipped with a dextrous robotic gripper. The artificial muscle envisioned is a low-cost actuator capable of being accurately electrically controlled, expanding or contracting linearly, and performing in a manner similar to natural skeletal muscles. Such an actuator has potential applications in areas where flexibility of a moving system goes together with a need for accurate control of the motion: haptic actuators, haptic switches, aperture adjustments in mobile phone cameras, robotics, advanced consumer products like smart fabrics, toys and medical technology. Totally new design principles and novel products for everyday use with a large economic potential can be anticipated. In addition, new and much larger markets will open up if microfluidic devices using micropumps and microvalves can enter the arena of clinical and point-of-care medicine and even the home diagnostics market.
EAPs exhibit many qualities that make them ideal for a low-cost actuator capable of being accurately electrically controlled, expanding or contracting linearly, and performing in a manner that resembles the natural skeletal muscles. Development of EAP fields will benefit companies that use EAP components to add value to products and services, companies skilled in using EAP to design new products and services, and materials processors that add value to raw materials. The small volumes of EAP consumption likely will have little impact on raw materials suppliers. Near-term returns on investment by EAP suppliers generally will be modest, because most EAP fields still are building infrastructure and knowledge bases for efficient and effective production, marketing and use of EAPs. The specialized knowledge necessary to produce EAPs and incorporate those effectively into products will slow the spread of EAP use, but it also has led to high market valuations for companies developing products for high-value applications. EAPs also are finding applications in haptics, which provides a tactile feedback technology taking advantage of the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user. Haptic feedback interface devices using EAP actuators provide haptic sensations and/or sensing capabilities. A haptic feedback interface device is in communication with a host computer and includes a sensor device that detects the manipulation of the interface device by the user and an EAP actuator responsive to input signals and operative to output a force to the user caused by motion of the actuator. The output force provides a haptic sensation to the user. Smart structures, which fully integrate structural and mechatronic components, represent the most refined use of EAPs and might eventually enjoy very large markets. Only a very simple EAP-based smart-structure product is in commercial use today. Other important areas of opportunity include applications in which designers are looking for performance improvements or new features but are unwilling to accept the compromises necessary to use conventional mechanisms and products (including non-mechanical devices) that must operate in a variety of conditions but have rigid designs optimized for a single operating point. Though improvements in EAP performance would increase the range of possible applications, the major barriers to widespread EAP use are users' lack of familiarity with the technology, the need for low-cost, robust production processes, and the need for improved design tools to enable non-experts to use the materials with confidence.
Electroactive polymers are increasingly used in niche actuators and sensor applications demanding large strains as compared to other piezoelectric materials. New applications are emerging in medical devices, haptic actuators, cellular phone cameras, smart fabrics for sensors, digital mechatronics and high strain sensors. New EAP devices are already replacing some mechanisms that rely on direct or indirect displacement to produce power. Shape-memory alloys contract with a thermal cycle, and piezoelectric technologies expand and contract with voltage at high frequencies. While both these technologies provide direct displacement, they are usually limited to 1% direct displacement. Electromagnetic solutions typically consist of a motor that rotates an output shaft, so there is no direct displacement from the motor itself, but there can be “indirect” displacement from a mechanism connected to the output shaft. EAP devices are facing competition in a new rapidly evolving and highly competitive sector of the medical market. Increased competition could result in reduced prices and gross margins for EAP products and could require increased spending on research and development, sales and marketing, and customer support.
As per iRAP, gobal market for EAP actuators and sensors reached US$148 mln in 2012. This will increase to US$363 mln by 2017. Medical devices had the largest market share in 2012 followed by haptic actuators, adjustable apertures for cellular phones, high strain sensing in construction, smart fabrics, and digital mechatronics. While medical devices will continue to maintain the lead in 2017, that sector will see a modest average annual growth rate (AAGR) of 11.8% for the period. Haptic actuators will see maximum growth at an AAGR of 35% from 2012 to 2017. Among the regions, North America has the largest market share with 66% of the market and will be maintained around 60% share till 2017.
As per IDTechEx Research Reports, electroactive polymers are one of the most promising technologies. Compared to inorganic materials the versatile polymers have various attractive properties, such as being lightweight, inexpensive and easy to manufacture. Tremendous amount of research and development has led to Electroactive Polymers (EAP) that can also change size or shape when stimulated by the right external electrical activation mechanism, meaning they can convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. Especially in the actuators segment vast R&D activity can be seen for specialized applications such as medical devices and biomimetic-robotics. Here the features of electroactive polymers are used to enable movement and generate force as well as electrically control surface properties. Haptics for consumer portable touch screen devices and peripherals is going to be the next big application and potentially the first large-scale implementation of EAP actuators in general with an expected penetration of 60% for haptic feedback in mobile phones for 2018. Today, EAPs are available that produce large strains and show great potential for applications. In comparision to only small response in the early development years electroactive polymers show significant deformation in the range of two to three orders of magnitude. Until now, despite several decades of R&D and first applications, the EAP field is far from mature and several subjects, such as performance and long-term stability, still need further development to tailor the properties of these polymers to the requirements of each application. The large-scale penetration of the touch screen market will finally take the technology to the next level.
IDTechEx forecasts a penetration of the haptics for consumer electronics touch display market exceeding 60% by 2018. This success will account for over 40% of the expected total revenue in 5 years. Other applications with great potential in +5 years from now include energy harvesting from see waves, medical applications, both invasive and non-invasive, large-area sensors, speakers etc. Especially for energy harvesting and the medical sector the technology needs to prove its suitability and improve efficiency as well as long-term stability before it can finally become commercial.