Shapeshifting Electronics

Shapeshifting Electronics

Technology News |
By Wisse Hettinga

Programmable materials can change shape at the push of a button and are being developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence Programmable Materials CPM

Programmable materials can change their characteristics in a controlled and reversible way with the push of a button, independently adapting to fit new conditions.

Materials for applications requiring specific changes to stiffness or shape are being developed by researchers from Fraunhofer CPM, which is formed of six core institutes with the aim of designing and producing programmable materials.

So, how can we program materials? “Essentially, there are two key areas where adjustments can be made: the base material – thermoplastic polymers in the case of mattresses and metallic alloys for other applications, including shape memory alloys – and, more specifically, the microstructure,” explains Dr. Heiko Andrä, spokesperson on the topic at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics ITWM, one of the Fraunhofer CPM core institutes. “The microstructure of these metamaterials is made up of unit cells that consist of structural elements such as small beams and thin shells.” While the size of each unit cell and its structural elements in conventional cellular materials, like foams, vary randomly, the cells in the programmable materials are also variable – but can be precisely defined, i.e., programmed. This programming can be made, for example, in such a way that pressure on a particular position will result in specific changes at other regions of the mattress, i.e., increase the size of the contact surface and provide optimal support to certain areas of the body.

The change in shape that the material should exhibit and the stimuli to which it reacts – mechanical stress, heat, moisture or even an electric or magnetic field – can be determined by the choice of material and its microstructure. “The programmable materials allow to adapt products to the specific application or person so that they are more multifunctional than before. As such, they do not need to be swapped out as often. It is particularly interesting in the context of material saving and sustainability,” says Franziska Wenz, deputy spokesperson on the topic at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM, another core institute of Fraunhofer CPM.

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