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A toolkit for transformable materials: How to design materials with reprogrammable shape and function

By Leah Burrows

(CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts) — Metamaterials — materials whose function is determined by structure, not composition — have been designed to bend light and sound, transform from soft to stiff, and even dampen seismic waves from earthquakes. But each of these functions requires a unique mechanical structure, making these materials great for specific tasks, but difficult to implement broadly.

But what if a material could contain within its structure, multiple functions and easily and autonomously switch between them?

Researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a general framework to design reconfigurable metamaterials. The design strategy is scale independent, meaning it can be applied to everything from meter-scale architectures to reconfigurable nano-scale systems such as photonic crystals, waveguides and metamaterials to guide heat.

The research is published in Nature.

“In terms of reconfigurable metamaterials, the design space is incredibly large and so the challenge is to come up with smart strategies to explore it,” said Katia Bertoldi, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences at SEAS and senior author of the paper. “Through a collaboration with designers and mathematicians, we found a way to generalize these rules and quickly generate a lot of designs.”

Bertoldi and former Graduate Student Johannes Overvelde, who is the first author of the paper, collaborated with Chuck Hoberman, an Associate Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and the Pierce Anderson Lecturer in Design and Engineering at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), and James Weaver, a Senior Research Scientist at the Wyss Institute, to design the metamaterial.

The research began in 2014, when Hoberman showed Bertoldi his original designs for a family of foldable structures, including a prototype of an extruded cube. “We were amazed by how easily it could fold and change shape,” said Bertoldi. “We realized that these simple geometries could be used as building blocks to form a new class of reconfigurable metamaterials but it took us a long time to identify a robust design strategy to achieve this.” In a culmination of the following years of research, the team realized that space-filling assemblies of polyhedra can be used as a template for the design of reconfigurable thin-walled structures that consist of rigid plates connected by flexible hinges, dramatically simplifying the design process.

The team used computational models to quantify all the different ways the material could bend and how that affected functionality like stiffness. This way they could quickly scan close to a million different designs, and select those with the preferred response.

Once a specific design was selected, the team constructed working prototypes of each 3D metamaterial both using laser-cut cardboard and double-sided tape, and multimaterial 3D printing approaches. Like origami, the resulting structure can be folded along their edges to change shape.

A toolkit for transformable materials: How to design materials with reprogrammable shape and function
The collaboration between Hoberman, Bertoldi, Overvelde and Weaver was on display at Le Laboratoire Cambridge through January 6, 2017. In an exhibit called 10°, the team developed a series of original, reconfigurable mechanisms termed “prismatic structures” based on crystal-lattice geometries. Visitors could transform the kinetic sculptures through hands-on interaction. Credit: John Kennard

“By combining design and computational modeling, we were able to identify a wide range of different deformations and rearrangements and create a blueprint or DNA for building these materials in the future,” said Overvelde, now Scientific Group Leader of the Soft Robotic Matter group at FOM Institute AMOLF in the Netherlands.

“This framework is like a toolkit to build reconfigurable materials,” said Hoberman. “These building blocks and design space are incredibly rich and we’ve only begun to explore all the things you can build with them.”

This formalized design framework could be useful for structural and aerospace engineers, material scientists, physicists, robotic engineers, biomedical engineers, designers and architects.

“Now that we’ve solved the problem of formalizing the design, we can start to think about new ways to fabricate and reconfigure these metamaterials at smaller scales, for example through the development of 3D-printed self-actuating environmentally responsive prototypes.” said Weaver.

This video shows how a reconfigurable model structure generated with the team’s predictive method can be drawn into different shapes that might perform very different functions. Credit: Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
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