Saturday, June 8, 2013

A new project on smart materials

I am the principle investigator on a new project that is being funded by the National Science Foundation to investigate the physics underlying morphing materials. The project brings together a large team of scientists, engineers, surgeons, educators and even artists to study various aspects of photo-mechanical materials, their applications, and how they can be used as an educational tool.

The grant is expected to be awarded in July; and, I look forward to moving into this new research direction -- through I am sure there will be many administrative headaches associated with this project.  So while I am excited by the research, part of me regrets the extra non-science-related burden that this project will bring.  Note that this project was recommended for funding on my birthday!

The work itself is best summarized by the abstract that we submitted to NSF:

The three goals of this project are to demonstrate what we call a “photomorphon,” the basic building block of a smart material that changes shape in response to light, to interconnect photomorphons with light in optical fibers, and to use interconnected photomorphons to create novel devices.  Like the transistor, which endows integrated circuits with complex functionality, photomorphons interconnected with light will make photonic circuits with exceptional capabilities.  Each element within such a photomorphon network will be both a sensor and an actuator, making a morphing material that intelligently changes shape in response to external stimuli.  Our approach is to work from the ground up in developing new materials with enhanced photomechanical response, creating photomorphons from the new materials, and integrating these to explore applications enabled by morphing materials. Applications will include tactile haptics and sensors, ultra-smart active textiles, and adaptive stretchable electronics, antennas and mirrors.

The fruits of our work will be the scientific and engineering foundations that enable technologies that are unimaginable today. We are developing a tool-set to build photomorphon networks and to understand how to program them.  As proof-of-principle of a photomorphon device, we are collaborating with physicians to make a light-actuated electrode positioner to be used for deep brain stimulation, which is currently in clinical trials and hold great promise for treatment of neural diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.   Our focus on using light to bend fibers into arbitrary space curves is an excellent paradigm for exploring the connections with art, and connecting art with soft-matter science in a way that will attract curious and creative young students to explore exciting new research embodying the union of art and science.