Materials that Remember their Original Design

Recall in the movie Terminator 2 there was this robot that could turn into a liquid then return to its original shape and act as if it were solid metal. Well, according to Pu Zhang at Binghampton University in the US, something like that has been made, although not quite like the evil robot. What he has made is a solid that acts like a metal that, with sufficient force, can be crushed or variously deformed, then brought back to its original shape spontaneously by warming.

The metal part is a collection of small pieces of Field’s alloy, an alloy of bismuth, indium and tin. This has the rather unusual property of melting at 62 degrees Centigrade, which is the temperature reached by fairly warm water. The pieces have to be made with flat faces of the desired shape so that they effectively lock themselves together and it is this locking that at least partially gives the body its strength. The alloy pieces are then coated with a silicone shell using a process called conformal coating, a technique used to coat circuit boards to protect them from the environment and the whole is put together with 3D printing. How the system works (assuming it does) is that when force is applied that would crush or variously deform the fabricated object, as the metal pieces get deformed, the silicone coating gets stretched. The silicone is an elastomer, so as it gets stretched, just like a rubber band, it stores energy. Now, if the object is warmed the metal melts and can flow. At this point, like a rubber band let go, the silicone restores everything to the original shape, the when it cools the metal crystallizes and we are back where we started.

According to Physics World Zhang and his colleagues made several demonstration structures such as a honeycomb, a spider’s web-like structure and a hand, these were all crushed, and when warmed they sprang back to life in their original form. At first sight this might seem to be designed to put panel beaters out of business. You have a minor prang but do not worry: just get out the hair drier and all will be well. That, of course, is unlikely. As you may have noticed, one of the components is indium. There is not a lot of indium around and for its currently very restricted uses it costs about $US800/kg, which would make for a rather expensive bumper. Large-scale usage would make the cost astronomical. The cost of manufacturing would also always limit its use to rather specialist objects, irrespective of availabiity.One of the uses advocated by Zhang is in space missions. While weight has to be limited on space missions, volume is also a problem, especially for objects with awkward shapes, such as antennae or awkward shaped superstructures. The idea is they could be crushed down to a flat compact load for easy storage, then reassembled. The car bumper might be out of bounds because of cost and limited indium supply, but the cushioning effect arising from its ability to absorb a considerable amount of energy might be useful in space missions. Engineers usually use aluminium or steel for cushioning parts, but they are single use. A spacecraft with such landing cushions can be used once, but landing cushions made of this material could be restored simply by heating them. Zhang seems to favour the use in space engineering. He says he is contemplating building a liquid robot, but there is one thing, apart from behaviour, that such a robot could not do that the terminator robot did, and that is, if the robot has bits knocked off and the bits melt, they cannot reassemble into a whole. Leaving aside the fact there is no force to rejoin the bits, the individual bits will merely reassemble into whatever parts they were and cannot rejoin with the other bits. Think of it as held together by millions of rubber bands. Breaking into bits breaks a fraction of the rubber bands, which leaves no force to restore the original shape at the break.

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