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March 02, 2016

Body heat triggers new material to change its shape

tweezers pulling a polymer atop a fingertip
A multiple-exposure image of a new shape-memory polymer reverting to its original shape after being exposed to body heat.

Polymers that visibly change shape when exposed to temperature changes are nothing new. But a research team led by Mitch Anthamatten, associate professor of chemical engineering, created a material that undergoes a shape change that can be triggered by body heat alone, opening the door for new medical and other applications.

The material developed by Anthamatten and graduate student Yuan Meng is a type of shape-memory polymer, which can be programmed to retain a temporary shape until it is triggered—typically by heat—to return to its original shape.

“Tuning the trigger temperature is only one part of the story,” says Anthamatten. “We also engineered these materials to store large amount of elastic energy, enabling them to perform more mechanical work during their shape recovery.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Polymer Science Part B: Polymer Physics.

“Nearly all applications of shape-memory polymers will require that the material pushes or pulls on its surroundings,” Anthamatten says.  “However, researchers seldom measure the amount of mechanical work that shape-memory polymers are actually performing.”

Anthamatten’s polymer is capable of lifting an object 1,000 times its weight. For example, a polymer the size of a shoelace—which weighs about a gram—could lift a liter of soda. Anthamatten says the new polymer could have a variety of applications, including sutures, artificial skin, body-heat assisted medical dispensers, and self-fitting apparel.

Read more about the research, see a demonstration of the new polymer, and hear Athamatten describe the science behind the material at

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