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Elastomeric Camouflage Switches Texture & Color

Finding their inspiration from nature's most skillful camouflage artists such as octopuses, squids, and cuttlefishes, MIT researchers have found a way to design a flexible material that can change both its color or fluorescence and its texture at the same time, on demand.

According to MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering Xuanhe Zhao, who joined the MIT faculty from Duke this month and holds a joint appointment with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the new material is essentially a layer of electro-active elastomer that could be quite easily adapted to standard manufacturing processes and uses readily available materials.

This could make it a more economical dynamic camouflage material than others that are assembled from individually manufactured electronic modules.

A synthetic elastomer material produced by a MIT researchers changes textures (top) and fluorescent light (bottom) dynamically and simultaneously, similar to camouflage abilities of cephalopods.
Images courtesy of the researchers 
(Source: MIT News)

A synthetic elastomer material produced by a MIT researchers changes textures (top) and fluorescent light (bottom) dynamically and simultaneously, similar to camouflage abilities of cephalopods.
Images courtesy of the researchers
(Source: MIT News)

In its initial proof-of-concept demonstrations, the material can be configured to respond with changes in both texture and fluorescence, or texture and color.

The new synthetic material is a form of elastomer, a flexible, stretchable polymer. “It changes its fluorescence and texture together, in response to a change in voltage applied to it — essentially, changing at the flip of a switch,” says Qiming Wang, an MIT postdoc and the first author of the paper, in an MIT News Office article.

It has been observed that cephalopods achieve their color changes using muscles that can alter the shapes of tiny pigment sacs within the skin — for example, contracting to change a barely visible round blob of color into a wide, flattened shape that is clearly seen. The muscle contraction also varies skin textures.

To replicate both observations, the researchers used a physical phenomenon they discovered in 2011, that applying voltage can dynamically change surface textures of elastomers. 

They combined this texture change with mechanically responsive molecules embedded in the elastomer, which cause it to fluoresce or change color in response to voltage changes. When the voltage is released, both the elastomer and the molecules return to their relaxed state.

First applications for such a dynamically reconfigurable camouflage are most likely to be military, for troops and vehicles that often have to move from one environment to another. Using a system like this new elastomer, Zhao suggests, either on uniforms or on vehicles, could allow the camouflage patterns to constantly change in response to the surroundings.

Though, more material experimentation will be needed for the researchers to induce different patterns across the same material (for now they only obtain one type of pattern for each type of material tried).

Another important potential application according to Zhao, would be as an anti-fouling coating on the hulls of ships, where microbes and creatures such as barnacles can accumulate and significantly degrade the efficiency of the ship’s propulsion.

Earlier experiments have shown that even a brief change in the surface texture, from the smooth surface needed for fast movement to a rough, bumpy texture, can quickly remove more than 90% of the biological fouling.

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN's sister site EE Times Europe.

15 comments on “Elastomeric Camouflage Switches Texture & Color

  1. FLYINGSCOT
    September 22, 2014

    This kind of technology looks like it belongs on an episode of Start Trek.  One can only image what the next 100 years holds for us.  i will watch out for this technology and I hope it finds more commenrcial uses than military ones.

  2. Susan Fourtané
    September 23, 2014

    Flyingscot, 

    Most of the technology comes from Star Trek, didn't you know that? 😀

    Yes, I agree. it would be wonderful if people would focus more in finding better applications to great technologies, instead of thinking of military applications in the first place. 

    -Susan

  3. Susan Fourtané
    September 23, 2014

    Flyingscot, 

    Most of the technology comes from Star Trek, didn't you know that? 😀

    Yes, I agree. it would be wonderful if people would focus more in finding better applications to great technologies, instead of thinking of military applications in the first place. 

    -Susan

  4. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 23, 2014

    This doesn't surprise me in the sense that design, the really great designs, have often been copied from nature. It makes sense that if you design based on something that exists and works in the natureal world that it would create a product that can do something new and helpful.

  5. prabhakar_deosthali
    September 24, 2014

    @Susan

    Contrary to the military applications where such material  can be used for camauflage,  the fashion industry could use such fabric in an innovative way so that the clothes designed using it, will adjust automatically to the ambient light . Such design wear will sparkle in the day as well as night parties!

    How is this idea Susan?

  6. Susan Fourtané
    September 24, 2014

    Prabhakar, 

    I like it. 🙂 It would be sustainable fashion. Like the already existing transformable and reversible dresses (there is a Fiinnish designer doing this, very successful, I have two of these dresses) clothes that adapt to light would be great.

    Following your idea, there could be a dress that is appropriate for the office and then adjusting to the evening light it's perfect to an after-work party. 😀 Yay! No need to go and change, no need to have two separate dresses, it's sustainable and nice.

    You had a nice, positive application for this fabric. 🙂  

    -Susan

  7. Susan Fourtané
    September 24, 2014

    Hailey, 

    ” … the really great designs, have often been copied from nature … “  

    Exactly. Even airplanes are designs copied from nature. There is a great potential behind this, if use wisely, and for good causes. I just don't like that every first thought is connected with a military application. :/ 

    -Susan 

  8. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 25, 2014

    @Susan, as usual other parts of the world are ahead of us in fashion. Those reversable dresses sound fun and practical.

  9. Susan Fourtané
    September 26, 2014

    Hailey, 

    Indeed, both the reversible and transformable dresses collections are fun and practical. The designer thought about them as sustainable and practical solutions for women in today's agile world, who sometimes lack time, but want to be at their best in both work and social environments. 

    Both collections let you have two dresses in one. The reversible dresses feature two colors, and also slightly different design. You can wear blue for work, after work go to the bathroom and reverse your dress to be the lady in red at the after-work party. 😀 

    The transformable collection transforms through little buttons from maxi to mini, from pencil to wide, from long sleeves to short sleeves. I have two of these and I love them. 

    Check Jolier.com

    She uses only good quality fabrics that don't need to be ironed. This is thinking of the business woman who needs to pack her dresses and get to a meeting as soon as she arrives to her destination. And it's true, the dresses look perfect right after coming out from the suitcase. They are easy to wear and super comfortable. They also adapt to your body in case of weight change. When she was pregnant I saw her wearing one of these dresses, one she had worn before the pregnancy. 

    I think she could use these camouflaged fabrics in her desugns. 

    -Susan 

  10. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 29, 2014

    @Susan, Camo could be totally fun…and maybe at some point she'll integrate a pedometor or some other electronic nicety into one of her designs and then we can write about it. 🙂

  11. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 29, 2014

    Cool ideas… This one is in US Military green which is close.  Transformable too:

    Milan saga - transformable dressSource: Jolie.com

  12. Susan Fourtané
    September 30, 2014

    Hailey, 

    What a nice idea! 😀 I need to talk to her about this. I would love to have a dress with some technology attached onto it. The ability to cool down in summer, or warm you up in winter would be perfect. 

    -Susan

  13. Susan Fourtané
    September 30, 2014

    That green is a pretty one. 🙂

    -Susan

  14. ahdand
    September 30, 2014

    I Think the green one with a black touch is a good combination of colors even though the design seems to be traditional

  15. ahdand
    September 30, 2014

    @Susan: Then there will be power running down your body. What happens if it rains suddenly ? Then it should be water proof with no electrical shortage due to water 

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