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Shape-shifting polymer enables folding solar panels and shape-shifting tools

Researchers from China’s China’s Zhejiang University in Hangzhou have developed a unique shape-shifting material that can change form in response to an external cue. This groundbreaking plastic polymer material could open the door to a myriad of exciting possibilities in such fields as medicine and aerospace engineering.

Scientists have been exploring the concept of shape-shifting materials ever since the idea was first proposed in the 1940s. In recent years, scientists have created conventional materials that can change shape in response to temperature, magnetism, and other factors. The new polymer is designed to respond to temperature changes, modifying its shape when it is heated or cooled.

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Unlike earlier materials that do not accumulate their changes, this new material can build upon previous forms, improving the structure it is forming itself into as it goes along. The polymer is engineered so it can memorize its intermediary forms and even revert to its original form at the end of its cycle. “This allows you to produce permanent shapes that are extremely complicated,” said senior scientist Tao Xie to the Wall Street Journal.

To demonstrate its unique properties, the team of researchers programmed the material into several, successive novel forms. Using heat as a catalyst for the metamorphosis, the team was able to change the material from a boat to a bird, then on to a pinwheel, and eventually back to its original shape.

The material’s ability to modify its shape and revert to its original form makes the compound extremely valuable to engineers and materials scientists. It could be used to create shape-shifting parts or tools in aerospace applications. The material also could be used for flexible medical sensors or even in solar panels to correct for changes the panels undergo following long-term exposure to the sun. Xie and his team published their research recently in the journal Science Advances.