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Rutgers University engineers developed a 3D-printed smart gel that could be used to develop soft robotics, flexible displays, and even new military camouflage technology, the researchers say.

Inspired by the color-changing skin of octopuses, cuttlefish, and squids, the gel changes shape and becomes an “artificial muscle” when exposed to light.

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Cephalopod-inspired smart gel

Published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, the study by the Rutgers University engineers details their 3D-printed smart gel as well as a stretchy material that changes color when it is exposed to light.

The inventions are inspired by chromatophore cells that give cephalopods such as cuttlefish, octopuses, and squids the ability to change texture and color for camouflage and communication purposes.

Once developed and scaled for mass consumption, the tech could allow for a host of different applications in house appliances and even military technologies.

“Electronic displays are everywhere and despite remarkable advances, such as becoming thinner, larger and brighter, they’re based on rigid materials, limiting the shapes they can take and how they interface with 3D surfaces,” says senior author Howon Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the School of Engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

“Our research supports a new engineering approach featuring camouflage that can be added to soft materials and create flexible, colorful displays,” he continues.

Light-sensing nanomaterials

The Rutgers engineers developed a 3D printable hydrogel, also known as a smart gel, that changes shape when it senses light. Hydrogels, which retain their shape and stay solid despite containing water, are actually naturally present in the human body. They are also used for a multitude of real-world uses, including contact lenses, soft robotics, and implants.

For the new smart gel, the engineer incorporated a light-sensing nanomaterial in the hydrogel. This, in effect, turned it into an “artificial muscle” that contracts in response to changes in light.

The researchers say their aim is to improve the technology’s sensitivity, response time, scalability, and durability. In doing so, they hope it will be usable for a variety of applications, including military tech, and robotics.

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