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Shape-Shifting Materials Are Packages of Future

Intel is developing transparent silicon dioxide hemispheres that can shift their shapes under control of electric currents.

Here's a packaging thought: What if form factors weren't fixed? It's not science fiction. Researchers at Intel have been studying materials that can change their shapes. And Raytheon has patented a polymer that can morph under the control of an electromagnetic field.

The big caveat here is to maintain some perspective between one's natural excitement over the "cool" factor of this research and the reality that it's proceeding very slowly and in fits and starts. I first wrote about the Intel work in 2009. It popped back into my head the other day when I was registering for PACK EXPO, the 25,000-attendee packaging conference to be held in Las Vegas at the end of September.

PACK EXPO has a program track called "Project 2020," where it is inviting engineers to envision the packaging design and development innovations that'll be in play in the next decade. If the Intels and Raytheons of the world have anything to say about it, those advances will be less evident on supermarket shelves than they will be in the housings of mobile phones, consumer devices, and, perhaps most importantly, robotic actuators.

The Intel work, which is taking place in Pittsburgh in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, focuses on transparent silicon dioxide hemispheres that can be reshaped via electrical impulses.

The really interesting part, as researcher Jason Campbell told me in 2009, is that the shape-shifting of the materials isn't at the micro level, but at the large level. So the same amount of material can be used to manufacture a cellphone form factor but then expanded into a netbook-sized rectangle.

"If you want to carry the device, you'd make it as small as possible by making it pack itself as densely as possible," Campbell said. "When you go to surf the Web, you're going to make it as big as possible. You're going to make it 'foamy.' "

However, shape-shifting cellphones are still a long way off. More immediately, an Intel semiconductor plant in Israel has fabricated sub-millimeter transparent silicon dioxide hemispheres. These structures are being used as building blocks to try to make working robotic actuators.

When PACK EXPO jogged my memory the other day, I went back to check if there had been any advances since my meeting with Campbell. There have been no publications in the past two years, which made me wonder if the work is quiescent. A Web search turned up the fact that shape-shifting materials are indeed the subject of much under-the-radar work. I turned up a patent application from Raytheon for a reconfigurable polymer. The material changes shape under the control of an electromagnetic field. The application posits using the material in an aircraft wing.

This stuff isn't entirely science fiction, but it is clearly in the research stage and a good distance away from productizing. Campbell says manufacturing costs are one of the big impediments to commercialization. I suspect reliability under real-world environmental conditions and creating software smart enough to control the variable physical structures are two others.

As noted above, it appears robotics will be one of the first applications. Judging by the Raytheon connection, the military and aerospace -- where cost concerns are less of a stumbling block -- will be others. So keep an eye on this stuff, because it's important. And please watch my video below. It's from 2009, but it's still relevant and interesting.

Intel Shape Shift Video

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