Programmable Materials
March 11, 2014

Programmable Materials

What if we could control the way in which construction materials reacted to various conditions? The goal of creating such a thing has long since been the dream of many an engineer, and the impact such a thing would have on construction and engineering as a whole would be truly monumental. Until now, this idea has been just that: an idea. Now, research in this field has produced the first prototype material that is able to change its own properties on command, restricting itself to the needs of the engineers working with it. We have created the first programmable material.

Created by researchers from Empa and ETH Zurich, this prototype programmable material is able to both dampen vibrations completely as well as self-conduct various frequencies on its own. The present model is made up of a one-meter by one-centimeter aluminum plate that is only a single millimeter thick. The researchers are able to control its vibration and vibration-damping abilities via 10 seven-millimeter-thick, one-centimeter tall aluminum cylinders that are connected to the sheet. Between these 10 cylinders and the aluminum plate sits several piezo discs that can be stimulated via electronic impulse and are able to nigh-instantaneously change their thickness. The piezo controls can be set so that the vibrations are reacted to normally, enabling the sheet to act as though the cylinders were not attached to it or allows for certain frequencies of vibrations to be absorbed. This also allows the piezo elements to alter their own elastic properties, allowing them to change their levels of rigidness. This enables the research team to dictate how and even if waves are allowed to propagate in the strip of aluminum, controlling its ability to respond to vibration. The sheet metal could be set so that it could block out certain vibration frequencies, allowing others, or simply negate all vibrations up through a certain threshold.

Presently, the material is only able to function on a one-dimensional plane and is only able to negate or absorb vibration frequencies it has been set to. Further research is being done to improve on this already groundbreaking design, hoping to build upon it so it can not only be used to create three-dimensional structures, but also so that it can react on its own in negating vibrations, reacting to its own environment and altering itself accordingly so that it retains its structure.

This project promises to revolutionize modern engineering. Imagine buildings able to withstand the terrible tremors caused by earthquakes or other natural disasters, adapting and altering themselves to hold up against even these sorts of attacks. This may still be a long way off, but already we are witness to the first stage of this incredible new material.

Personally, I will be happy if this could make it so my walls and windows do not rattle every time a train rolls by or an airplane flies overhead.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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