Researchers set to move on to 4D printing

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A research team has been given a US$855,000 grant to start research on printing's next step: the fourth dimension.

(Schlegel wireframe 8-cell image by Robert Webb, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The ABS plastic isn't even dry, but researchers are already moving on to find out what could be the next big thing to come to printing. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the University of Illinois have been granted US$855,000 from the United States Army Research Office to research and develop 4D printing.

The fourth dimension being time, the aim is to develop a material that can change itself over time (beyond, say, melting in the heat like plastic, or fading in light like ink) — such as a camouflaging material that can change its colour and patterning, or a material that can alter its structure to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Of course, this is all still very theoretical, but the team's plans definitely have a real-life application end goal — this isn't just research for its own sake.

"Rather than construct a static material or one that simply changes its shape, we're proposing the development of adaptive, biomimetic composites that re-program their shape, properties or functionality on demand, based upon external stimuli," said Principal Investigator Anna C Balazs, PhD. "By integrating our abilities to print precise, three-dimensional, hierarchically-structured materials; synthesise stimuli-responsive components; and predict the temporal behaviour of the system; we expect to build the foundation for the new field of 4D printing."

A four-dimensional cube.
(Credit: JasonHise)

3D printing has been used for some pretty amazing stuff — building living and bionic body parts, nano-scale construction, low-cost prosthetics, even helping a disabled duck get a new lease on life.

4D printing's first applications will probably — given the source of the funding and focus of the team's research — be a little more military in nature, but the team is certainly not confining its thoughts. The material it proposes will be a responsive "filler" embedded within stimuli-responsive hydrogel, and possible applications include 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," said the University of Illinois' Dr Ralph G Nuzzo.

Somehow, these magnificent creatures spring to mind...

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