A boat. A windmill. A bird. The polymer plastic developed by researchers at Zhejiang University, in China, can do them all. You just need to apply a little heat and the material starts taking on a series of shapes, as if by magic.
The new "shape memory" plastic is being hailed as a world-first with possible uses in medical devices and aerospace. The ability to fold and refold a material using an external stimulus could, for example, be useful for opening up blocked blood vessels. For now, though, the material is simply fascinating to watch:
Shape shifting polymers aren't new. We already have materials that react to heat, light and electric charges and change shape. What's different about the latest plastic is its tunability and reusability. You can heat and reheat the polymer and get the same results endlessly. Depending on the use-case, it can be both elastic (that is, return to the same shape) and plastic (take on a new shape).
The material currently reacts at temperates up to 130 degrees Celsius, making it unsuitable for most applications. But Tao Xie, one the researchers, says his team is now working on polymer that morphs at much lower temperatures. That could open the way to flexible electronics that react as they come into contact with the body, Xie told Science.