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Scientists 3D print shape-shifting “chainmail” fabric

What's New? | August 23, 2021 | By:

NTU Singapore scientists have developed fabric that can stiffen on demand. Photo: Nanyang Technological University.

A new type of shape-shifting technology modeled on ancient chainmail armor has been developed by scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Caltech in the U.S. Described by the researchers as a type of “wearable structured fabric,” the material is able to quickly change from flexible to stiff due to carefully arranged interlocking particles.

In terms of its physics, its capabilities are enabled by what’s called a jamming transition, the same principle that causes vacuum-sealed rice or beans to stiffen when packed up tight, leaving the particles with little room to move. The team set out to develop a fabric that can be easily transitioned from soft and foldable to rigid and load bearing by first investigating how structured but hollow particles could be interlocked to form a fabric with stiffness that could be altered on command.

“Inspired by ancient chain mail armor, we used plastic hollow particles that are interlocked to enhance our tunable fabrics’ stiffness,” says study author Assistant Prof. Wang Yifan. “To further increase the material’s stiffness and strength, we are now working on fabrics made from various metals including aluminum, which could be used for larger-scale industrial applications requiring higher load capacity, such as bridges or buildings.”

The team’s octahedron-shaped particles are 3D printed with nylon plastics into a chain-mail-like arrangement, which is then encapsulated in a plastic envelope and compacted using a vacuum. This increased the packing density, pulling the carefully designed particles in and increasing the points of contact between them, resulting in a structure that is 25 times more rigid.

The team is now working to improve the performance of the material, and is investigating new ways it might be stiffened, with magnetism, temperature and electricity among the possibilities.

The research was published in the journal Nature. Source information was provided by Nanyang Technological University and Caltech.

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