Shape-shifting material advances the Internet of Things

Scientist develop the first material with multiple responsive behaviors

Imagine airplanes and roads that self-heal after exterior damage. Imagine wearing clothes that monitor your health needs. Innovations like these require smart materials, which not only capture and analyze data, but change in response to findings.

Smart materials are the building blocks of the Internet of Things—a network of objects embedded with electronics, software, and connectivity. This network produces enormous volumes of actionable data.

While there are barriers to overcome before smart materials hit the mainstream, a recent discovery made at WSU will accelerate their advancement.

New kind of smart material

A team led by Mike Kessler and Yuzhan Li, both in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, developed the first material that incorporates multiple responsive behaviors. This multifunctional smart material can change shape when exposed to heat or light. It can assemble and disassemble itself. A provisional patent has been filed on the work.

In partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the team worked with a class of cross-linked polymers called liquid crystalline networks (LCNs), which combine unique properties of both liquid crystals and polymer networks. Taking advantage of the way the material changes in response to heat, the researchers induced a unique three-way shape shifting behavior. They added groups of atoms that react to polarized light and used dynamic chemical bonds to improve the material’s reprocessing abilities.

The resulting material reacts to light, can remember its shape as it folds and unfolds, and can heal itself when damaged. Further development of this material may change the future of transportation, infrastructure, and health care.

Leading the way in material science discovery

Dr. Kessler leads a research center that unites universities, industry, and government to develop bioplastics and biocomposites. He is also training the next generation of material scientists through an undergraduate research program funded by the National Science Foundation.