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Is the self-folding polymer really a world first?

An announcement that appeared recently in several media outlets touted that scientists have developed a smart material that, "for the first time," can be programmed to fold itself into complex shapes. The announcement came from Tao Xie, a materials scientist at Zhejiang University in China, and a paper describing the technology was published in Science Advances.

An announcement that appeared recently in several media outlets touted that scientists have developed a smart material that, "for the first time," can be programmed to fold itself into complex shapes. The announcement came from Tao Xie, a materials scientist at Zhejiang University in China, and a paper describing the technology was published in Science Advances.

Xie explains in the article that the programming process involves folding the plastic material physically at "various elevated temperatures." That gives the polymer the memory it needs to fold on its own without external forces.

Interestingly, I saw a presentation on a self-folding polymer by Skylar Tibbits, Director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT's Department of Architecture, during the Global Plastics Summit in October 2015. I asked Tibbets about this "new" development from the Chinese university and if he'd seen it yet.

"I have seen the work," he told PlasticsToday, "but I wouldn't trust popular media headlines like, ‘for the first time.' The only difference I can tell is that perhaps it can transform into multiple states, not only A to B, but perhaps another. But it isn't entirely clear. We've also done that setup, so it wouldn't be necessarily new."

The main drawback that Tibbits sees in Xie's development is "the manual folding before the heating process—then the heat process transforms it back into something else."

While Tibbits' presentation was new—and absolutely fascinating—to me, I also found a Youtube video from North Carolina State University posted on Sept. 28, 2012, demonstrating the use of light to trigger the self-folding of a polymer sheet from a 2D pattern into a 3D shape.

While we might be quick to wonder who was first and maybe even tempted to suspect that the IP for this was obtained in some unethical manner, we should be reminded that at any given point in the space-time continuum several people in different places could have the same thoughts about a given technology.

Could it be that somehow in the "informed" universe the information is "out there" in potential, and that the information is captured by several people in various places at almost the same time? The possibilities of science—and polymers—are endless!

TAGS: Materials
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