Thanks for the additional links, Dave. And ChasChas, I think that's a brilliant usage idea for a material that can change texture on demand, except at this point we're only talking soft plastics not hard, durable ones used in structures. I wonder how difficult it would be to extend this idea to rigid plastics, or find a different method that worked with them.
For those who are interested, here is a link to the article by Zhao. The polymer needs to be fairly soft (modulus less than 1450 psi) -- although electrostatic lithography requires materials which are much softer still. Zhao's group used a silicone rubber. It was bonded to a more rigid polymer film (Kapton), which in turn was bonded to a metal electrode. On the other side of the silicone was what Zhao describes as a "transparent conformal electrode" (actually a 20% salt solution).
This is definitely an interesting phenomenon which could have all kinds of potential applications. Zhao's group is doing a lot of fascinating work, and it's great to see it being discussed outside of academia.
Thanks, williamlweaver, for your response. I had the same initial reaction, and my husband told me about the Gecko Project. After writing this, we saw the latest Mission Impossible via Netflix, and when Tom Cruise's right hand glove quits at 120 stories, I thought of this discovery.
On-demand television programming, on demand software, now plastic material that can adapt on demand. Very sci-fi, but as William notes, tons of possible applications. The real test will be in the design of the systems that can deliver the voltage changes to modify the surface texture. That's the real design challenge for any of these applications.
Wow! Combine this research with Berkeley's Gecko Project and there is a possibility of on-demand adhesion. I could spend all morning dreaming about possible applications for such a substance. I can also see this being used for aerodynamic applications... dynamic vortex shedding for variable drag profiles -- both high-speed and high-drag configurations from the same wing without flaps or geometry adjustment... sonic boom reduction... stealth radar deflection... underwater propulsion... oh my!
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