At the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, biomolecular engineering Professor Ying Diao and Graduate student Hyunjong Chung have discovered a mechanism that has the be profound ability to generate shape memory phenomena in organic crystals used in plastic electronics. Plastic electronics paired with shape memory material could bring about advancements in medical electronics as well as consumer electronic devices.
The researchers discovered the shape-memory phenomenon in two organic semiconductors materials. Published in the Nature Communications journal, the shape-memory materials use heat, light as well as electrical signals and mechanic forces to pass information through the materials. The materials then expand, contract, bend and morph back into their form over and over again without a limit.
The shape-shifting crystals were discovered accidentally as part of a different experiment. The team was in the process of creating a large organic crystal and was eager to find out how the crystal would be affected by heat. Graduate student Hyunjoong described the discovery by saying "We looked at the single crystals under a microscope and found that the transformation process is dramatically different than we expected. We saw concerted movement of a whole layer of molecules sweeping through the crystal that seem to drive the shape-memory effect - something that is rarely observed in organic crystals and is therefore largely unexplored."
Curious about applying the phenomenon to the real world, the researchers explored using shape-memory material science alongside the field of organic electronics. Using the shape-memory effort in a plastic semiconductor in modern electronics would cause devices to use less energy and be overall more efficient technology. According to Diao, electronics nowadays are dependent on the energy-intensive process of transistors switching on and off. The shape-memory effect in plastic semiconductors could fix this, creating advancements in low power electronics.
The research of the shape-shifting materials marks a forward step in understanding nature's design rules on the molecular level. As stated by Diao, "The shape-memory phenomenon is common in nature, but we are not really sure about nature's design rules at the molecular level. Nature uses organic compounds that are very different from the metal alloys used in shape-memory materials on the market today. In naturally occurring shape-memory materials, the molecules transform cooperatively, meaning that they all move together during shape change."
The researchers are excited about their recent findings and are eager to apply them in the recently discovered Nobel Prize-winning concept of molecular machines.