Morphing Composite Material Has Potential for Optics, 3D Bioscaffolds, & Drug Delivery

Rice University polymer scientist Rafael Verduzco and his colleagues have developed materials that start out as flat slabs and then morph into shapes that can be controlled by patterns written into their layers. Materials that can change their shape based on environmental conditions are useful for many applications, including optics, three-dimensional biological scaffolds, and the controlled encapsulation and release of drugs. The new material has two layers, one of which is a liquid crystal elastomer (LCE), a rubber-like material of cross-linked polymers that line up along a single axis, called the nematic director. The other is a thin layer of polystyrene, placed either above or below the LCE. With changing temperature, the LCE tries to contract or expand, but the stiffer polystyrene layer prevents this and instead causes wrinkling, bending, or folding of the entire material. The Rice University team discovered that the layers reacted to heat in a predictable and repeatable way, allowing for configurations to be designed into the material.