Israeli scientists have developed a new metamaterial that can form any pattern if you compress it: Squashing a cube made from this new material can make it smile [see video], but it can be designed to do almost anything, they claim.
Therefore, this 3D-printed material is poised to revolutionize soft robotics, prosthetics and wearable technologies.
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For example, if your prosthesis keeps chafing and doesn’t snugly fit your limb, the new ‘programmable’ material could change your life.
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This new approach to forming a mechanical metamaterial – which is engineered to have a property that’s not found in nature and can be programmed to deform in a uniquely complex manner – could have future applications in wearable technologies, prosthetics and soft robotics, a sub-field of robotics that deals with non-rigid robots constructed with deformable materials like silicone, plastic, fabric or rubber.
In a recent Tel Aviv University study, published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, researchers show how they mix up the sub-units of a material to “program” its final pattern. Their method could pave the way for the development of more close-fitting, comfortable and user-friendly prosthetics.
“The possibilities are endless”
Developed by TAU’s Dr. Yair Shokef and Prof. Martin van Hecke of Leiden University and AMOLF, the Netherlands, the substance was used to 3D-print a metamaterial cube. A smiley-face pattern emerged on the side of the cube when it was compressed between appropriately patterned surfaces.
“We started with a series of flexible building blocks whose deformation properties varied with their orientation,” Shokef said in a statement. “We then developed a new design principle to enable these bricks to be oriented and assembled into a larger metamaterial with machine-like functionalities.”
This metamaterial, according to the researchers, has an unusual property. “On a seemingly normal cube, a programmable pattern of bulges appears when it is compressed,” Shokef says. “In the case of metamaterials, those designed by humans, the spatial structure determines the material’s behavior. By smartly combining the building blocks, we can program the material in such way that every desired pattern appears on the sides of a compressed cube.”
There are many applications that could be derived from this groundbreaking study. “This type of programmable ‘machine materials’ could be ideal for prostheses or wearable technology in which a close fit with the body is important,” Shokef says. “If we can make the building blocks more complex or produce these from other materials, then the possibilities are endless.”