Assistant Professor Baoxing Xu and his team have employed theoretical mechanics to invent a new material structural model. This proof of concept equates to an exponential jump in available “building blocks” for mechanical engineers. Because the model includes the incorporation of electronics into the structure, some amazing near-future technology could be on the horizon.

“Electronics can be incorporated into material that can not only change into new shapes but also have materials that have smart, adaptable properties. Mechanical engineers have been interested in this idea for some time but we’ve finally defined how it can actually happen. This has innumerable possibilities for manufacturing electronic products of all kinds,” Xu said.

The newly designed building blocks, called “heterogeneously architected 2D structures (HASs),” have a new patterning design for cell structures and their tailored connections. When applied, the new structures will allow mechanical textiles to have a wide variety of compositions and properties, ranging from extremely hard to extremely soft, including bending and stretching.  This means that the fabrication of novel, structure-enabled wearable electronics, such as stretchable displays, batteries and LEDs, is now possible.

For example, utilizing this new principle, materials could be made into something as critical as a stretchable MRI cap, where the flexible properties provide a customized fit for each patient and more accurate sensor readings, or something as entertaining as a TV worn as a bracelet.

Even more futuristic is that these materials can also be designed with a range of properties in response to external stimuli such as electrical and magnetic fields and pH values. This capability will allow textiles with this structural model to be adaptive to surroundings, which has a huge potential for applications in 4D printing techniques. The fourth “D” is time, where materials can be printed then self-assemble over time in response to their environment.

This work was funded by UVA and is recently published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): Theoretical search for heterogeneously architected 2D structures