The mimetic poly-alloy that allows an android Robert Patrick to become cleaver, cop, and foster mom in Terminator 2 ain’t real, but if the T-1000 were origami, Chinese scientists have created something pretty close to James Cameron’s feverish future dreams.
Using what’s known as a shape memory polymer — a substance that can switch between designs in response to an external trigger — researchers from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou have developed a material that can shape-shift from crane to windmill to essentially any geometries conceivable.
Here’s a sped-up change. Watch as it turns into a crane:
Although materials that morph between two shapes have been developed before, this polymer is far more adaptable than we’ve ever seen. At room temperature, the cross-linked polycaprolactone can be folded like you would a piece of paper; heat it to 176 degrees Fahrenheit, and the bonds cause the material to snap back to its remembered shape.
Here’s the trick: At even higher temps — greater than 266 degrees Fahrenheit — deforming the material alters its shape memory.
What this means is you can essentially overwrite shapes just by altering the temperature and manually deforming material, rather than the traditional scorched-earth method of melting a substance down to break molecular bonds.
Manipulating the polymer is “limited largely only by imagination,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science Advances on Friday:
“A square film can be folded plastically into a permanent bird, which can be deformed into various temporary shapes (a plane or a flat film) that can recover by virtue of its elasticity. The recovered bird can be further manipulated plastically to form a drastically different permanent origami structure (boat) that can also fix various recoverable temporary shapes (a windmill or a flat film). This ability to repeatedly and permanently redefine the shape of a smart origami is a critical distinction from other known responsive origami structures.”
As Popular Mechanics points out, this was just as much an academic exercise in cutting-edge materials engineering as it is anything else; the scientists believe, however, there could be biomaterial or aerospace applications down the line.
You can read the full paper here.