Polymers that change shape and color like chameleons

Photo credit: Pei Zhang.

Have you ever wished you had a shirt that changes color depending on your mood or a robot that can adjust its shape like an octopus?

This could soon be possible thanks to groundbreaking research by Pei Zhang, a Ph.D. Candidate.

She has found a way to create special materials that can change both shape and color, mimicking the way chameleons and other animals do.

What’s the big idea?

Pei Zhang and her research team were inspired by animals that have the amazing ability to change color and shape.

Think about how chameleons can hide from predators by blending into their surroundings, or how octopuses change shape to navigate tight spaces.

Zhang wanted to find out if these incredible tricks could be copied using artificial materials called polymers.

The special ingredients: LCEs

The star of Zhang’s research are so-called liquid crystal elastomers, or LCEs for short.

These are special types of polymers that respond to changes in temperature, light, or even tension or stretching.

Simply put, LCEs are like super-flexible plastics that can change shape and color depending on what’s happening around them.

Zhang covered these LCEs with a layer that changes color with temperature. When the material is stretched, it changes color from orange to blue. The color is not caused by added dyes, but by the tiny structure of the material. This really makes the color part of the material itself.

Additionally, when the material is not stretched, it reflects a type of light that we cannot see with our eyes. But when it is stretched, the light changes into a shape we can see, showing a preset pattern. The fancy term for this is “mechanochromism.”

What can we use it for?

These particular materials could be game-changers in several areas:

Medical care: Imagine a bandage that changes color to show how much pressure it is putting on a wound.

Building safety: The material could be used in buildings to show whether structures such as ceilings or windows are under excessive stress.

Fashion and art: Think about clothing whose patterns change or jewelry whose appearance adapts to your mood.

Zhang even made a 3D “beetle” and an “octopus” using these materials. They can change color from green to red when heated and change shape when a special type of light shines on them.

Zhang is excited about the future. She believes these shape- and color-changing materials could play a big role in robotics and smart clothing. She also believes these materials could make our use of technology more fun and intuitive.

Whether they’re medical bandages, building safety measures, or the future of fashion, these real-life “transformers” could be leaving the lab and entering our lives sooner than we think.

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Laura Coffey

Laura Coffey is a Worldtimetodays U.S. News Reporter based in Canada. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Laura Coffey joined Worldtimetodays in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: LauraCoffey@worldtimetodays.com.

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