This Shape-Shifting Gel Can Move Itself Over Time

A Clockwork Hydrogel

Blooming Flower

Blooming Flower

Made of programmable materials, this flower can bloom slowly, unfurling its petals at an appointed time.Sheiko et al. Nature Communications

In the wild world of smart materials there are some that can assemble themselves, but they usually need a nudge from an outside source, like adding light, heat or water in order to start the shape-shifting process.

In a paper published today in Nature Communications, researchers announced that they have created a material that can change shape over time, without an external cue.

Inspired by the mechanical properties of a watch, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created a hydrogel (a jelly-like polymer) that can be programmed to move into different positions over time.

To demonstrate the concept, the team built a blooming flower that could unfurl gradually, with each layer of petals opening at an appointed time. The hydrogel can be programmed by adjusting a molecular 'spring' inside the material, which can be set to change shape over a matter of seconds or hours.

The researchers hope a material that can unfold at a pre-determined pace may lead to devices that could work in healthcare settings, with the potential to expand or grow in the human body as needed.