New Polymer Created by Chinese Scientists Is the Liquid Terminator of Origami

If the T-1000 were origami, it might look like this.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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.

Zhao et al., Science Advances

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.

Recovery from an origami boat into an origami bird with infrared heating.

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.

Recovery from a flat film into a kirigami “ZJU” with infrared heating.

You can read the full paper here.