Heat, light stimulate self-assembly: Researchers develop shape-changing ‘smart’ material


Researchers from Washington State University recently have developed a new smart material that can change shape due to heat or light. This smart material has unique, multifunctional, and can assemble and disassemble itself.

For the first time, researchers can integrate various smart capabilities. The capabilities are like shape memory behavior, light-activated movement, and self-healing behavior into one material.

Inserting working flexibility

Smart materials can respond to external stimulation such as light or heat. It has some interesting uniqueness and looks almost magical as they secretly fold and unfold themselves. They have different potential applications, like actuators, drug transfer systems, and self-assembling devices. For example, smart materials could change shape to unfold a solar panel on a space satellite. For that purpose, it doesn’t require a battery-powered mechanical device.

Just because smart materials are challenging to develop and rarely can only perform one function at a time, these smart materials haven’t come into extensive use. Researchers also make an effort to recycle the material so its special properties can continually repeat themselves.

The WSU research team developed a material that allows multiple functions at one time. It also has the potential to add more tasks.

Fold and unfold, remember and heal

The team worked with liquid crystalline networks (LCNs), a class of long-chain molecules. It provides order in one direction and gives unique material properties. The researchers took advantage of how material changes in response to heat. It encourages a unique three-way shape-shifting behavior. They added groups of atoms that respond to reverse light and used active chemical bonds to enhance the material’s recycling capabilities.

Michael Kessler, said, “We know these different technologies worked separately and tried to integrate them in a way that would be compatible.” Kessler is a professor and Berry Family director in the WSU School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME).

  • The resulting material responds to light and can remember its shape.
  • It can fold and unfolds itself.
  • When damaged, it can heal itself.

For example, a razor blade scratch on the material can be fixed by applying ultraviolet light. The material’s movements can be already altered and its properties tailored.

Researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory used facilities at their Centre for Nanophase Materials Sciences. They are used for studying mechanisms responsible for the material’s unique abilities. This research is particularly appropriate to the challenge of smart systems and their basic and resulting material’s theme.


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