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Futuristic self-building programmable materials
April 15, 2013
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by Mark Ollig

Just when we were up-to-date about what 3D printing had to offer, we now need to consider the next dimension of printing.

Get ready folks, here comes nanoscale-sized, self-programmable materials created using 4D printing.

Empowering objects made with special materials using 3D printing techniques and a fourth dimension of time, shows 4D printed materials will be able to adopt other shapes after being printed.

Micro and nanoscale technology inside the material will be able to redesign itself – by itself – when needed.

Skylar Tibbits is an architect, designer, and computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He has been studying how to program physical materials to essentially re-shape and re-build themselves.

A new 4D self-assembly lab Tibbits is heading will be located at MIT.

In collaboration with Stratasys, a 3D printer and materials maker with headquarters in Minnesota and Israel, Tibbits is starting a new 4D printing project.

He briefly explained the idea behind 4D printing in a video I watched.

“You take multi-material 3D printing so you can deposit multiple materials, and you add a new capability, which is transformation. That right off the bed [printer’s tray], the parts can transform from one shape to another shape, directly on their own. And this is like robotics without wires or motors, so you completely print this part, and it can transform into something else,” explained Tibbits during a TED conference Feb. 26 in California.

Tibbits is working with a Boston consulting and engineering firm called Geosyntec on developing a new prototype for piping materials.

Today, we bury water pipes of a certain size to handle a given amount of water volume and pressure flowing through them.

As time goes by, these water pipes may not be able to handle the increase in demand capacity for water volume. New, larger water pipes would need to be buried to replace the older water pipes.

Imagine a future where existing buried water pipes could be independently adaptive; changing their size and shape by expanding or contracting to accommodate changing water volume.

These futuristic water pipes would also be able to adjust themselves to the water pressure demands flowing through them.

Water pumps will not be needed because of the unique undulation properties of the self-adaptive piping material – the pipe itself will move the water.

Tibbits calls it Adaptive Infrastructure.

He breaks down what is needed:

• Materials and geometry

• Interactions

• Energy

Tibbits suggests using programmable nanoscale materials that can self-assemble, or build themselves, using any type of passive energy source such as; heat, magnetism, gravity, pneumatics, shaking, or water.

Inside the Self Assembly Lab at MIT, Tibbits and others will be working on developing materials which respond to passive energies for re-shaping themselves.

Tibbits described self-assembly as a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure only through local interaction.

He proposes automated, programmable methods could resolve inefficiencies in currently used production methods.

Tibbits said there is an unprecedented revolution happening.

The revolution is the ability to create physical and biological materials which can change their shape and properties, and have the means to figure out the correct mathematical dimensions for self-assembly.

Tibbits talked about how a flat sheet of material could “self-fold” as needed in order to build multi-dimensional structures, such as buildings.

He showed videos of different materials changing their shape (via programmed nanoscale instruction sets); in one example a material was activated using water.

As I listened to him explain about how these self-assembling materials would be used in the future, I was reminded of a recent online article I had read.

In a Live Science piece dated Jan. 23, researchers from North Carolina State University created a self-healing electrical wire.

The wire, containing gallium and indium in a fluid alloy core, was shown in a video powering a light bulb. The wire was then cut in half with a scissors, thus interrupting the electrical circuit path and disconnecting the power from the bulb.

In 10 minutes, the wire self-heals, fully re-bonding itself together at the ends where it was severed, and is shown once again lighting the bulb. The video is at http://tinyurl.com/bas3g34.

You can also watch Skylar Tibbits’ TED talk at http://tinyurl.com/d7vk5nk.

If Tibbits’ self-assembling technology and materials are used in real-world applications in the future, I believe they will also be capable of self-healing.

For example, if part of the finished material’s surface was scratched or punctured, resulting in an indentation or hole, the nano-scaled instruction-set inside the material would implement self-healing by absorbing surrounding material to use for filling in the voids.

This may remind some of you of the aluminum foil-like material with self-healing and self-folding properties found at a supposed UFO crash site in Roswell NM, in 1947.

Rest assured, yours truly is not suggesting we are back-engineering extraterrestrial technology which arrived here from another planet.

“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry once said, “Ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids. Human beings built the pyramids, because they’re clever and they work hard.”


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