New Shape-Shifting Polymer Works Hard, Plays Hard

A research group at the University of Rochester has developed a new polymer with some amazing traits. It can be stretched or manipulated into new shapes, and it will hold that shape until heat is applied. Shape-shifting polymers like this already exist, but this one is special: it can go back to its original shape when triggered by the heat of a human body. Oh, and it can also lift objects up to 1000 times its mass.

The group’s leader, chemical engineering professor [Mitch Anthamatten], is excited by the possibilities of this creation. When the material is stretched, strain is induced which deforms the chains and triggers crystallization. This crystallization is what makes it retain the new shape. Once heat is applied, the crystals are broken and the polymer returns to its original shape. These properties imply several biomedical applications like sutures and artificial skin. It could also be used for tailored-fit clothing or wearable technology.

The shape-shifting process creates elastic energy in the polymer, which means that it can do work while it springs back to normal. Careful application of molecular linkers made it possible for the group to dial in the so-called melting point at which the crystallization begins to break down. [Anthamatten] explains the special attributes of the material in one of the videos after the break. Another video shows examples of some of the work-related applications for the polymer—a stretched out strand can pull a toy truck up an incline or crush a dried seed pod.

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3D printing with chemicals

From the horse’s mouth,

“In this lithography experiment light creates free radicals from phenylbis(2,4,6-trimethylbenzoyl)phosphine oxide which induce polymerization of 1,6-hexanediol diacrylate.”

Or for those without a Chemical Engineering degree, light from a (high resolution) projector interacts with a special liquid, producing a hard polymer on the surface. A platform within the liquid is lowered, taking the layer of polymer with it. Shine the projector again to produce another layer: lather, rinse, repeat. Long story short, an atypical 3D printer using light on a very small scale.

You get the chemicals and lab equipment, we’ll get the laptop and projector, and for goodness sake [Jimmie] stop bumping the table.

[Thanks Tomas]