Morphing materials take shape at Rice University

Biomedical implants or soft robots that reconfigure on demand are a step closer thanks to a new method of printing morphing  materials.

morphing materials
Rafael Verduzco and graduate student Morgan Barnes (Image: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Rafael Verduzco and graduate student Morgan Barnes of Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering in Texas developed a method to print objects that can be manipulated to take on alternate forms when exposed to changes in temperature, electric current or stress.

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According to Rice, the researchers think of this as reactive 4D printing and their findings are published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

In 2018 the team reported their ability to make morphing structures in a mould but using the same chemistry for 3D printing limited structures to shapes that sat in the same plane. Consequently, no bumps or other complex curvatures could be programmed as the alternate shape.

Overcoming that limitation to decouple the printing process from shaping is a significant step toward more useful materials.

“These materials, once fabricated, will change shape autonomously,” Verduzco said in a statement. “We needed a method to control and define this shape change. Our simple idea was to use multiple reactions in sequence to print the material and then dictate how it would change shape. Rather than trying to do this all in one step, our approach gives more flexibility in controlling the initial and final shapes and also allows us to print complex structures.”

The lab’s challenge was to create a liquid crystal polymer ‘ink’ that incorporates mutually exclusive sets of chemical links between molecules. One establishes the original printed shape, and the other can be set by physically manipulating the printed-and-dried material. Curing the alternate form under ultraviolet light is said to lock in those links.

morphing materials
Shapeshifting materials produced at Rice University with a 3D printer morph from their original form to an alternate through changes in temperature, electric current or stress. This example shows how one printed configuration can be programmed to take various shapes (Image: Verduzco Laboratory/Rice University)

Once the two programmed forms are set, the material can then morph back and forth.

The researchers had to find a polymer mix that could be printed in a catalyst bath and still hold its original programmed shape.

“There were a lot of parameters we had to optimise – from the solvents and catalyst used, to degree of swelling, and ink formula – to allow the ink to solidify rapidly enough to print while not inhibiting the desired final shape actuation,” Barnes said.

One remaining limitation of the process is the ability to print unsupported structures, like columns. To do so would require a solution that gels adequately enough to support itself during printing, she said. Gaining that ability will allow researchers to print far more complex combinations of shapes.

“Future work will further optimise the printing formula and use scaffold-assisted printing techniques to create actuators that transition between two different complex shapes,” Barnes said. “This opens the door to printing soft robotics that could swim like a jellyfish, jump like a cricket or transport liquids like the heart.”