Good news this week for fans of materials that can metamorphose: Scientists have developed a new technology that produces shapeshifting objects straight from the fourth dimension.
It's a little less dramatic than it sounds, but the technology is still pretty wild.
A multinational research team from the US, China, and Singapore has developed a new process for printing out objects and tools that change shape when heat is applied to the material. The new technique falls into the category of 4D printing, which refers to materials that are printed out in one configuration but wind up in another. The research was published today in the journal Science Advances.
The term 4D printing may sound gimmicky, but it designates a particular approach to 3D printing. In physics, one way to look at the fourth dimension is to regard it as time itself. Any object in space-time has four dimensions: length, width, depth, and duration. With 4D printing, the element of time becomes part of the printing system, resulting in materials that emerge from the printer with one shape but eventually morph into another.
“4D printing means that the shape of the printed part can change as a function of time,” said lead researcher Jerry Qi, professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. “Time is part of shape-forming process. As demonstrated in this work, the printed part can change its shape dramatically upon heating.”
RELATED: 4D Printer Creates Shapeshifting Orchid
The new 4D printing method ventures boldly into the fourth dimension by using materials called shape memory polymers (SMPs), Qi said. Designed with advanced computer programs, SMPs use two or more component substances, each of which has different temperature properties.
For instance, a hinge between two panels can be printed with internal stress that's only released when the hinge material is warmed up. The SMPs essentially “remember” various shapes, depending on how and where the built-in stress elements are printed. Add heat, and the hinge swings the panels into a specific configuration as the object assembles itself.