Unique Shapeshifting Material Transforms Itself With Heat or Light

The new morphing material could have applications in everything from biomedical devices to soft robotics innovations.
Shelby Rogers

From Dracula to Mystique in the X-Men comics, shapeshifting creatures have captured public imagination and intrigue. While living creatures don't quite have the ability to morph into new ones (yet), a new material has been engineered that can change shapes with ease. 


Light and temperature stimuli

Researchers at Colorado University Boulder created the material that uses light and temperature as stimuli to shift into new shapes. This, as the researchers pointed out, allows "a literal square peg to morph and fit into a round hole."

This innovation could have potential benefits in a variety of industries, from manufacturing, soft robotics, and biomedical devices like artificial muscles to space-related uses. 

“The ability to form materials that can repeatedly oscillate back and forth between two independent shapes by exposing them to light will open up a wide range of new applications and approaches to areas such as additive manufacturing, robotics and biomaterials”, said Christopher Bowman, senior author of the new study and a Distinguished Professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE)

This isn't the first time shapeshifting mechanisms have come to life. However, previous efforts often needed more stimuli for the material to respond. They've also been stifled by how much they can move by size or object states. 

How the material shapeshifts

The new material removes most of those issues by using programmable two-way transformations on a macroscopic level. They used liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs), and those LCEs are the same technology most people have in their TV displays. The LCEs' unique molecular arrangement makes them respond to dynamic changes through heat and light. 

To get the material to respond, the engineers added light-activated triggers to the LCE networks. The LCE triggers are set to respond to a particular wavelength of light. Those triggers remain inactive until it comes into contact with the appropriate heat or light stimuli. 

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For example, the team could program the material to become a traditional, hand-folded origami swan. The swan would stay in perfect form at room temperature, but if it was heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, the swan would relax into a flat sheet. As it cools again to room temperature, it would resume its origami swan shape. 

The CU Boulder team said in a statement they plan on continuing to adjust the shapes of the new material. By testing its limits, the team hopes they can determine what industries would be best suited to use their invention. Currently, the engineers hope their project could be applied to biomedical devices, giving traditionally rigid mechanisms more flexibility -- especially when being used within or around the human body.

“We view this as an elegant foundational system for transforming an object’s properties,” said Matthew McBride, lead author of the new study and a post-doctoral researcher in CHBE. “We plan to continue optimizing and exploring the possibilities of this technology.”

The material was further described in a recent edition of the journal Science Advances.

Via: CU Boulder

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