Breakthrough Metamaterial Makes its Own Decisions

A new metamaterial that senses its environment is able to use that information to make changes to its shape or even color. Inspired by natural systems that work similarly and without human intervention, this new material could be a boon for researchers and engineers working across a wide array of scientific disciplines.


Materials scientists are always looking for the next great metamaterial. The Debrief has previously reported on a wide range of these efforts, including metamaterials used for stealth technology, others being used by Battelle for hypersonic weapons development, nanotechnology applications of metamaterials to make stronger metals than available in nature, and even some metamaterials that take advantage of the unique aspects of the quantum realm.

Now, a team of researchers has looked to nature for inspiration, and what they found may change materials science in a profound way.


To develop a metamaterial that can react to its environment independently, a group of researchers led by Guoliang Huang, a professor of engineering at the University of Missouri, looked to nature for inspiration. Specifically, they modeled their work on natural systems that can sense information, process that information, and then make movements or changes based on that information without external controllers in the loop.

“Some examples of these natural materials include the quick reaction of a Venus flytrap’s leafy jaws to capture an insect, chameleons changing the color of their skin to blend into their surroundings, and pinecones adjusting their shapes in response to changes in air humidity,” said Huang in a post for the World Economic Forum.

With results published in the journal Nature Communications, Huang and his colleagues used this information to develop a material that can sense information like temperature in its environment, use a built-in computer chip to process that sensory information, and then send out electrical signals to make changes to the material’s shape, much like a human muscle or that Venus flytrap.

“Basically, we are controlling how this material responds to changes in external stimuli found in its surroundings,” said Huang.


In the study, the researchers note that their new material can benefit a number of applications.

“For example,” said Huang, “we can apply this material to stealth technology in the aerospace industry by attaching the material to aerospace structures. It can help control and decrease noises coming from the aircraft, such as engine vibrations, which can increase its multifunctional capabilities.”

Other applications include designing a robot that can sense its environment and change shape or color to adapt to the environment, or even to perform functions humans cannot. This approach can also be applied to bioscience applications, where the ability to have a customized material react to certain external conditions may aid drug delivery or even remote surgery.

In the end, the team notes that more work needs to be done to test their new metamaterial in real-world environments but given the unique benefits to systems that can sense and react without human intervention, it probaly only a matter of time before a metamaterial like this is regular use.

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction