Today’s aircraft have nowhere near the agility and precision of nature’s best fliers. “Bats
are different from most animals—and from most engineered materials—because they have very flexible wings that offer a lot of interesting aerodynamic properties,” says Kenny Breuer, a mechanical engineer at Brown University. Patrick T. Mather and his team at Syracuse University have created a material with a similar quality: The polymer chains line up to make it stiff and stable in one direction, but 12 times as elastic in the other. Five to 10 years from now, such a material could allow the wings of small unmanned aircraft to flap by expanding and contracting, which would enable planes to fly at slow speeds and pivot precisely during surveillance missions.
By donning different clothing, people can prepare for the sun, rain, and cold—but never before have shirts or pants intelligently adapted to their environment. Anna Balazs, an engineer at the University of Pittsburgh, says that within two decades “your clothes could do the thinking for you.” A material developed at Pitt and Harvard can regulate its temperature to keep within a certain range. A chemical and mechanical feedback loop within its layers turns a heat-producing reaction on and off at preprogrammed degrees. The same strategy could be used to make materials that self-regulate in response to other stimuli, such as pH, light, or glucose—meaning water pipes, windows, and medical devices could be just as smart.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.