New materials are being invented all the time, and some of them often amaze us with their ingenuity and functionality. But when nature itself becomes the source of inspiration for a designer or engineer, the result can be particularly fascinating. Chao Chen, a Master’s student in product design at the Royal College of Art, invented a unique shapeshifting material with a structure inspired by the pine cone.
During a walk on a rainy day, he picked up a pine cone and saw something curious: it closed its outer shell in response to water. This pine cone’s ability to expand and contract depending on humidity gave Chen an idea to create a material that would open in the sunny weather and close when it rains. This concept became the basis for his first-year final project called Water Reaction.
Using the pine cone’s anatomy as a model, Chen designed a water-reacting laminate made from fabric, veneer and a thin layer of film. Thus, when the veneer is subjected to humidity, its fibers expand, resulting in the fact that the material elongates and curls inward. This is exactly how the pine cone’s outer layer works. “When it gets wet, the outer layer elongates more than the inner layer and closes in on itself,” Chen told Co.Design.
Chen envisions three main applications for his innovative building material. The first is the Water-Reacting Shelter, as he calls it, which could provide shelter in public places, where people could hide from the rain. “When it rains, all the tiles will be closed to cover the whole surface of the shelter,” Chen said.
The second application is more focused on the aesthetics rather than functionality. The shapeshifting material could cover the architectural surfaces to provide a unique design solution by changing the whole look of a building on rainy days. In other words, a vividly colored facade covered with the material would look ‘normal’ on sunny days and turn the building into a colorful mosaic when it rains. You can see how it works in the video below:
The third application is less elegant but quite helpful for those who have plants and flowers at home. The material could, in fact, become a sort of water detector for the house plants. A piece of material colored blue (for the increased humidity) on one side and red (for the lack of humidity) on the other could be put in the soil to remind you when you should water your plants.
There is still enough work to do until Chen’s building material can become available for commercial use. “The material needs to be more durable. I need to test how many times it can get wet, how it can deal with heavy winds,” he said.
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