Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have developed an inexpensive new smart material that changes colour and shape in response to heat and electricity, making it the first ever created that responds to two different stimuli.
The unique design paves the way for a wide variety of potential applications, including clothing that warms up while you walk from the car to the office in winter and vehicle bumpers that return to their original shape after a collision.
Made using polymer nano-composite fibres derived from recycled plastic, the programmable fabric can change its colour and shape when stimuli are applied. ‘As a wearable material alone, it has almost infinite potential in AI, robotics and virtual reality games and experiences,’ said Milad Kamkar, a chemical engineering professor and director of the Multi-scale Materials Design Centre at Waterloo. ‘Imagine feeling warmth or a physical trigger eliciting a more in-depth adventure in the virtual world.’
The novel fabric design is a product of the happy union of soft and hard materials, featuring a combination of highly engineered polymer composites and stainless steel in a woven structure. The researchers created a device similar to a traditional loom to weave the smart fabric. The resulting process is extremely versatile, enabling design freedom and macro-scale control of the fabric’s properties.
The fabric can also be activated using a lower voltage than previous systems, making it more energy-efficient and cost-effective. In addition, lower voltage allows integration into smaller, more portable devices, making it suitable for use in biomedical devices and environment sensors.
‘The idea of these intelligent materials was first bred and born from biomimicry science,’ said Kamkar. ‘Through the ability to sense and react to environmental stimuli such as temperature, this is proof of concept that our new material can interact with the environment to monitor ecosystems without damaging them.’
The next step is to improve the fabric’s shape-memory performance for applications in the field of robotics. The aim is to construct a robot that can effectively carry and transfer weight to complete tasks.
The research has been published in Nano-Micro Small.