A New Shapeshifting Material Inspired By Nature

by on July 30, 2015

   Nature is often behind some of the most profound and cultural changing artistic designs. For London’s Royal Art College design student Chao Chen, it all began with a walk in the park.

   Struggling to find inspiration for his upcoming class project, Chen became fascinated with a sodden pinecone along the side of the path. When wet, pinecones expand their outer seed shields to better protect the inner seeds from molding while maturing. When dry, the pinecone opens back up again, ready and waiting to release its seed.

The new material closing up during a storm.

The new material closing up during a storm.

   Fascinated, Chen set to work mimicking nature’s protective wonder. If a weather reactant material could be created, it would have enormous potential for architecture and design. Imagine a public space that could be light and airy on a sunny day, but then immediately turn into a protected, covered area during a sudden rainstorm—sans any human agency. Or a design feature that changes its artistic shape based on the weather.

   Combining together a unique layer of veneers, fibers, and a wooden pulp film, Chen was able to recreate the effect at a preliminary level. The outer fibers of his test project, ‘Water Reaction,’ expand perpendicularly to the inner texture, simulating the expanding and contracting powers of nature. To demonstrate the design capability, Water Reaction toys with the geometric capabilities of this pinecone wonder—first as an optimized weathering shield, and secondly as a design feature that reveals a new set of color shapes when retracted.1

   The resulting demo is a gorgeous feat of design. However, it’s not quite ready to go up on buildings around the world. It’s not quite durable enough to survive out in the open for long periods. That’s Chen’s current challenge as he graduates from design Masters student to design Master.