Materials science and mathematics combine to enable the printing of shapeshifting architectures that mimic the natural movements of plants
A team of scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has evolved their microscale 3D printing technology to the fourth dimension, time. Inspired by natural structures like plants, which respond and change their form over time according to environmental stimuli, the team has unveiled 4D-printed hydrogel composite structures that change shape upon immersion in water.
“This work represents an elegant advance in programmable materials assembly, made possible by a multidisciplinary approach,” said Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D., senior author on the new study. “We have now gone beyond integrating form and function to create transformable architectures.”
This video portrays the microscale printing process and transformation of a 4D-printed, orchid-shaped hydrogel composite structure. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University
Lewis is a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., a Wyss Core Faculty member as well as the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Professor of Physics at Harvard University and Harvard SEAS, is a co-author on the study. Their team also includes co-author, Ralph Nuzzo, Ph.D., the G.L. Clark Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In nature, flowers and plants have tissue compositions and microstructures that result in dynamic morphologies that change according to their environments. Mimicking the variety of shape changes undergone by plant organs such as tendrils, leaves, and flowers in response to environmental stimuli like humidity and/or temperature, the 4D-printed hydrogel composites developed by Lewis and her team are programmed to contain precise, localized swelling behaviors. Importantly, the hydrogel composites contain cellulose fibrils that are derived from wood and are similar to the microstructures that enable shape changes in plants.
Reported on January 25 in a new study in Nature Materials, the 4D printing advance combined materials science and mathematics through the involvement of the study’s co-lead authors A. Sydney Gladman, who is a graduate research assistant advised by Lewis and specializing in the printing of polymers and composites at the Wyss Institute and SEAS, and Elisabetta Matsumoto, Ph.D., who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss and SEAS advised by Mahadevan and specializing in condensed matter and material physics.
By aligning cellulose fibrils during printing, the hydrogel composite ink is encoded with anisotropic swelling and stiffness, which can be patterned to produce intricate shape changes. The anisotropic nature of the cellulose fibrils gives rise to varied directional properties that can be predicted and controlled. This is the reason that wood can be split easier along the grain rather than across it. Likewise, when immersed in water, the hydrogel-cellulose fibril ink undergoes differential swelling behavior along and orthogonal to the printing path. Combined with a proprietary mathematical model developed by the team that predicts how a 4D object must be printed to achieve prescribed transformable shapes, the new method opens up many new and exciting potential applications for 4D printing technology including smart textiles, soft electronics, biomedical devices, and tissue engineering.