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MIT’s FibeRobo: A shape-shifting, cost-effective fiber offers endless possibilities

A programmable, actuating fiber developed by an interdisciplinary team of MIT researchers known as ‘FibeRobo’, the fiber contracts in response to an increase in temperature, then self-reverses when the temperature decreases, without any embedded sensors or other hard components. As such it could enable designers to easily incorporate actuation and sensing capabilities into a wide range of fabrics for numerous applications.

Materials that form shapes at room temperature, melt away when heated, and then resurface when cooled are known as morphing materials. Scientific research on materials that may autonomously undergo reversible shape changes in response to environmental stimuli is expanding quickly. These materials may find use in a wide range of industries, including flexible electronics, soft robotics, clean energy harvesting, and sensors. These morphing materials hold great promise for biological applications by enabling the creation of materials that, at body temperature, take on preprogrammed shapes.

The goal of the MIT researchers’ project was to create a fiber that would be able to function silently, undergo significant morphological changes, and work with standard textile production processes. They employed a liquid crystal elastomer (LCE) to do this. Liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) are active soft matter-based materials with strong stimulus responsiveness and reversible, large-shape morphing capabilities. LCEs have demonstrated broad and growing applications in soft robotics, wearable devices, artificial muscles, and optical machines.

Figure: Liquid Crystal elastomer structures and a topological figure of understanding. Credit: Structure-induced Intelligence of Liquid Crystal Elastomers, Zhen-Zhou Nie, Dr. Meng Wang, Prof. Hong Yang.

As the LCE material heats up, the crystal molecules fall out of alignment and pull the elastomer network together, causing the fiber to contract. When the heat is removed, the molecules return to their original alignment, and the material to its original length, Forman explains. By carefully mixing chemicals to synthesize the LCE, the researchers can control the final properties of the fiber, such as its thickness or the temperature at which it actuates. ‘What we’re doing here is we’re taking the same idea of what happens when a textile can change shape, but trying to see if we can find new utility in it. And so what we’ve developed here is a reconfigurable fiber. So this fiber shrinks when heated, but when you cool it down, it reverses back to the original length.’ This is taken from the video of the FibeRobo introduction.

Figure: The fibre contracts in response to an increase in temperature, then self-reverses when the temperature decreases

The resulting fiber can shrink up to 40% without bending, act at skin-safe temperatures (the skin-safe variant contracts up to about 25%), and be manufactured for 20 cents per meter with a low setup cost—roughly 60 times less expensive than shape-changing fibers on the market today. The fiber can be utilized in nonindustrial activities such as hand weaving or manual crocheting, as well as industrial sewing and knitting machines, without the need for any process adjustments.

MIT researchers presented a variety of FibeRobo applications, including an embroidered sports bra that tightens when the wearer begins to exercise. The researchers hope to modify the fiber’s chemical makeup in the future to make it recyclable or biodegradable. Additionally, they aim to simplify the polymer synthesis procedure so that anyone lacking experience in wet labs can complete it independently.

A lot of future applications can be generated in the huge world of textile industry in this fourth industrial revolution era. Such innovative textiles can try to help mitigate fashion intelligence throughout the world. Shape-shifting fibers and morphing fabrics offer designers opportunities to explore innovative design concepts and push the boundaries of traditional materials and techniques. They enable the creation of products with unique functionalities, aesthetics, and user experiences. Hoping to see more collaborations of such innovative fusion between technology and the fashion world.

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