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"Shapeshifters" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Inspired by the growth of leaves, researchers have developed a theory for how to pattern the growth orientations and magnitudes of a bilayer, two different layers of elastic materials glued together that respond differently to the same stimuli. By programming one layer to swell more and/or in a different direction than the other, the overall shape and curvature of the bilayer can be fully controlled.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Future the shaping.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

The curve of a leaf. The swoop of a branch. The contours of our face. Nature has a way of making complex shapes from a simple set of growth rules. If someone could reverse-engineer that process, we too could grow an infinitely diverse array of shapes.

Someone has. Researchers at Harvard University have unlocked the rules, and demonstrated a way to grow any desired shape from any starting shape.

They use a bi-layer -- two layers of elastic material glued together -- where each responds differently to the same stimuli. By programming one layer to say, swell more and/or in a different direction, the overall shape and curvature can be controlled.

Problem is determining the needed growth patterns is so complex it would take days for a supercomputer to solve. But the team developed a mathematical technique to figure it out in seconds -- on a laptop -- to create the most intricate shapes out of any material.

They demonstrated by modeling the growth of a Snapdragon flower petal from a tube. The Colorado River Basin from a flat sheet and from a disc, the face of one of the founders of quantum physics, Max Planck.

The shape of things to come: consumer and industrial applications, soft robotics even tissue engineering.

And no, they can't re-shape your body.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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