The scientific pursuit of lifelike characteristics in materials has taken some interesting turns. One of these is a new "morphing material" developed by polymer scientists at Rice University. Professor Rafael Verduzco and his team have created a substance that begins as a flat slab, but can rapidly assume different shapes based on patterns designed within its composite layers.

The material is comprised of two strata: a liquid crystal elastomer (LCE) and polystyrene (PS). The LCE operates as a "nematic director," with its molecules pointing in the same direction. When heated, the LCE expands along its nematic axis. Meanwhile, the polystyrene acts as a stiffener, directing the energy of this expansion (or contraction) into the entire material, causing it to fold, bend, or wrinkle in lifelike ways. The process is indefinitely repeatable, unlike some shape memory polymers that may alter their shape only once. "This is important for biomedical applications, such as dynamic substrates for cell cultures or implantable materials that contract and expand in response to stimulus," said Verduzco in a Rice University press release. "This is what we are targeting with these applications."

Because the new morphing material is biocompatible, it is appropriate for biological applications such as 3D biological scaffolds, optics, and the controlled release of medicines.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.