“Active materials” could inspire new technology

A group of University of Chicago scientists are testing the boundaries between machines and materials. Blurring these lines, they claim, could enable new kinds of technology.

“We’re trying to get a sense of what is possible,” said Vincenzo Vitelli, a professor of physics in the James Franck Institute. “If you question the foundations of a subject like elasticity, you are bound to stumble into interesting consequences. The concepts we’ve uncovered could be useful for engineering, biology, and robotics alike.”

Scientists and engineers are always searching for the principles that underlie all the phenomena we see around us. Such principles often form the basis for new technologies—just as the discovery of thermodynamics led to the heat engines that powered the Industrial Revolution. One area of particular interest in this search today is a subject called “active matter,” which describes how matter behaves when it’s made up of constituents powered by tiny little engines. These engines can be synthetic or living components—a classic illustration is the movements of a flock of birds.

“But while there’s been a good amount of investigation into active matter that behaves like a fluid, there has been far less on the rules that govern active matter that behaves as a solid,” said Prof. William Irvine.

The classic way to picture a solid’s makeup is as a cluster of masses connected by springs. In a study published March 2 in Nature Physics, Vitelli, Irvine and collaborators sought to rethink the nature and behavior of solids. They imagined a solid that was instead connected by active springs powered by tiny batteries—taking it from strictly a material into the realm of machines.

Read more at UChicago News.