Funding to Explore & Develop 4D Printing Materials

Researchers at Harvard SEAS, the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh have received a USD$855,000 grant from the United States Army Research Office to further look into and develop ‘4D printing’ of functionally adaptive materials.

Imagine a garment that could respond to lighting changes to alter its colour and pattern.  Imagine a vehicle with a coating on its body that adapts to environmental conditions.

A trio of university researchers from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering propose to evolve Skylar Tibbits (@SkylarTibbits) 4D printing breakthrough: 3D printing materials that can exhibit behavioural changes through the traditional fourth dimension, time.

“Rather than construct a static material or one that simply changes its shape, we’re proposing the development of adaptive, biomimetic composites that reprogram their shape, properties or functionality on demand, based upon external stimuli,” says principal investigator Anna C. Balazs, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies the computational design of chemo-mechanically responsive gels and composites. “By integrating our abilities to print precise, three-dimensional, hierarchically-structured materials, synthesize stimuli-responsive components and predict the temporal behaviour of the system, we expect to build the foundation for the new field of 4D printing.”

Co-Principle Investigator Jennifer A. Lewis, Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard SEAS and expert in 3D printing functional materials, explains that current 3D printing technology facilitates complex functionality at nano and micro levels within specific areas of a structure. “If you use materials that possess the ability to change their properties or shape multiple times, you don’t have to build for a specific, one-time use,” she says. “Composites that can be reconfigured in the presence of different stimuli could dramatically extend the reach of 3D printing.”

As the research will utilise responsive fillers embedded within a stimuli-responsive hydrogel, the third principle investigator, Ralph G. Nuzzo – Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois, a synthetic chemist who has created novel stimuli-responsive materials – says this opens new routes for producing the next generation of smart sensors, coatings, textiles and structural components:

“The ability to create one fabric that responds to light by changing its colour, and to temperature by altering its permeability, and even to an external force by hardening its structure, becomes possible through the creation of responsive materials that are simultaneously adaptive, flexible, lightweight and strong. It’s this ‘complicated functionality’ that makes true 4D printing a game changer.”


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