Imagine a tent that blocks light on a dry and sunny day, and becomes transparent and water-repellent on a dim, rainy day. Or highly precise, self-adjusting contact lenses that also clean themselves. Or pipelines that can optimize the rate of flow depending on the volume of fluid coming through them and the environmental conditions outside.
A team of researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) just moved these enticing notions much closer to reality by designing a new kind of adaptive material with tunable transparency and wettability features, as reported yesterday in the online version of Nature Materials.
"The beauty of this system is that it's adaptive and multifunctional," said senior author Joanna Aizenberg, Ph.D., a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute and the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at SEAS.
The new material was inspired by dynamic, self-restoring systems in Nature, such as the liquid film that coats your eyes. Individual tears join up to form a dynamic liquid film with an obviously significant optical function that maintains clarity, while keeping the eye moist, protecting it against dust and bacteria, and helping to transport away any wastes -- doing all of this and more in literally the blink of an eye.