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Programmable Materials Move without Electronic or Mechanical Parts

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Written by Lambert Varias | October 20, 2014

A few years ago we saw a custom fabricated material with embedded actuators and magnets, which enable it to autonomously fold into a predetermined shape when subjected to electricity. MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab is working on creating carbon fiber, wood, textiles and other materials that can also change their shape on their own, but without any electromechanical parts involved.


These so-called programmable materials change their structure in reaction to various stimuli. In the case of programmable carbon fiber, the lab prints other materials into it that enable it to curve when exposed to heat, moisture or light.

The video below shows a potential application for programmable carbon fiber – a car airfoil.

Programmable wood on the other hand can be made to react to moisture through “[d]ifferent patterns of grain direction, thickness and material combinations.”

These prototypes remind me of the touch-me-not plant. The Self-Assembly Lab is also developing programmable textiles, rubbers and plastics. The goal with “material robotics or “robots without robots”” is to have parts that are cheaper and simpler to manufacture, less error-prone and more compact compared to electromechanical parts or devices.

[via MIT Self-Assembly Lab via Emergent Futures]