Smart material getting smarter at WSU

CODY COTTIER | Evergreen news editor

WSU researchers have developed a new multifunctional smart material which combines several qualities of other materials, allowing it to change shape under heat or light and self-heal.

The invention marks the first time multiple functions have been blended in one smart material. Michael Kessler, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and one of the lead researchers on the project, said it could have applications in aerospace technology and biomedicine, among other fields.

“So many technologies are limited by the materials,” Kessler said, “so smart materials are just one approach to improving all that technology.”

Yuzhan Li, a staff scientist in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and another lead researcher, said the material will first be used in aerospace technology, as it is funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR).

With its three combined functions, he said less of the smart material could perform the same amount of work, thereby reducing the weight of structures composed of it.

“You always want material to do more,” Li said.

Smart material is generally known as a material which responds to external stimuli, but beyond this there are many possibilities and the researchers hope to add more functions in the future.

“What defines a smart material is sort of vague,” he said. “It’s like, one person’s smart material is another person’s … dumb material.”

Aside from its multiple functions, the new material is unique in that it can be reprocessed, or reshaped, to repeat those functions. When exposed to UV and blue light and heat, depending on the case, the material can remember its original shape as it folds and unfolds, and heal small scratches in itself.

Kessler began his work on smart materials as a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, where he helped to develop the first self-healing plastic in 2002. He said the media covered the breakthrough extensively, including a reference from Jay Leno, who said the invention would allow certain celebrities to live forever.

“That was our highest point of fame,” Kessler said.

But the newspapers overhyped it, he said, suggesting that it would “change everything.” For this reason, he is hesitant to speculate on the future of this and other smart materials, though he does believe they will have a great role.

“I think they’ll be an important player in future technologies,” he said. “For sure.”

After spending his own college and post-doctorate years researching smart materials, Kessler said Li and several students have taken over the lab work, while he has supervised, encouraging and giving direction to the researchers.

“I’m not usually in the lab. I go in there and the students hide their stuff because they don’t want me to break it,” he joked.

Li and Kessler have studied epoxy together since 2010, when Li came to the University of Iowa from Beijing to earn his Ph.D. When Kessler moved to WSU in 2010, Li joined him.

“We had a lot of fun from this research,” Li said.

They are collaborating with researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, who are studying the internal structure of the material to better understand its relationship to the material’s properties.

They have submitted a proposal for another grant from the AFOSR which will allow them to add more functions to the material and “make it smarter.”