Breathing the Life into Smart Materials

Developing artificial molecular materials that are capable of movement.


A scientist Nathalie Katsonis at the University of Twente has invented smart materials that exhibit properties such as complex shape transformation, and autonomous motion, under illumination. The materials involve molecular materials that are capable of movement, often under the influence of light.

Katsonis explained, “Molecular machines generate the motion that is essential to life: from a growing plant to the beating of the heart or dividing cells; these processes are all pre-programmed at the molecular level.”

“We chemists widely accept the idea that life has emerged from chemical reactions taking place in closed compartments; I would argue that this chemical evolution must have been followed immediately by the possibility to move because these compartments need energy and nutrients.”

Katsonis developed these smart materials getting inspired by the movements that enable essential life functions, such as growth, cellular division, and the phototactic behavior of bacteria.

She did lots of research in the field of artificial molecular motors and performed experiments in liquids, where it is impossible to produce any actual work. In addition, she investigates techniques to enhance the movement of these particles, by joining them in polymers and in fluid precious stones.

Katsonis said, “In these materials, a small stimulus can lead to a significant change in characteristics or form. I’m exploiting this fact because it’s exactly what’s needed to coordinate the movement of individual molecules.”

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