This new material does something pretty unusual when it’s stretched

4 Dec 2018

Liquid crystal elastomer with auxetic capabilities, showing its flexibility and high optical quality. Image: Dr Devesh Mistry

Unlike rubber, this newly discovered material actually gets stronger the more you stretch it.

Rubber is a great, flexible material with a myriad of different uses but, as we all know, there are only so many times we can stretch it before it either loses effectiveness or breaks. However, a research team from the University of Leeds has revealed something new that does the complete opposite.

Publishing its findings in Nature Communications, the researchers described the discovery of the first synthetic material that becomes thicker, at a molecular level, when stretched. These ‘auxetic’ properties already exist in nature – as seen with cat skin, and tendons in the human body – but being able to fabricate them is a breakthrough.

Research into such materials has been ongoing for more than 30 years, but they have only been manufactured thanks to advances in engineering, particularly 3D printing.

‘A really exciting discovery’

“This is a really exciting discovery, which will have significant benefits in the future for the development of products with a wide range of applications,” said Dr Devesh Mistry, who led the research.

“This new synthetic material is inherently auxetic on the molecular level and is therefore much simpler to fabricate, and avoids the problems usually found with engineered products. But more research is needed to understand exactly how they can be used.”

The discovery was made while examining the capabilities of liquid crystal elastomers. While liquid crystals are common in mobile phones and TV screens across the world, they take on completely new properties and possible applications when linked with polymer chains.

“This new synthetic material is a great example of what physics research and exploring the potential of materials such as liquid crystals can discover,” Mistry said. “Collaboration between scientists with several areas of expertise and the extensive technical facilities we have at Leeds make this kind of exploration and discovery possible.”

In terms of applications, the researchers said there are many, including body armour, architecture and medical equipment.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic