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Mar 12, 2021

Controlled by light alone, new smart materials twist, bend and move

Posted by in categories: robotics/AI, solar power, sustainability

Researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering have created light-activated composite devices able to execute precise, visible movements and form complex three-dimensional shapes without the need for wires or other actuating materials or energy sources. The design combines programmable photonic crystals with an elastomeric composite that can be engineered at the macro and nano scale to respond to illumination.

The research provides new avenues for the development of smart -driven systems such as high-efficiency, self-aligning solar cells that automatically follow the sun’s direction and angle of light, light-actuated microfluidic valves or soft robots that move with light on demand. A “photonic sunflower,” whose petals curl towards and away from illumination and which tracks the path and angle of the light, demonstrates the technology in a paper that appears March 12th, 2021 in Nature Communications.

Color results from the absorption and reflection of light. Behind every flash of an iridescent butterfly wing or opal gemstone lie complex interactions in which natural photonic crystals embedded in the wing or stone absorb light of specific frequencies and reflect others. The angle at which the light meets the crystalline surface can affect which wavelengths are absorbed and the heat that is generated from that absorbed energy.

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