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New ‘Smart’ Material Developed at Iowa State Changes Physical Properties Instantly

AMES, Iowa — From new vaccines to cutting edge agriculture technology, researchers at Iowa State University are constantly coming out with something new. The latest development is something engineers call a “smart material.”

Engineers said this new rubber material can change physical properties instantly. In a split second it goes from flexible to hardened rubber.

The material begins as a piece of flexible rubber, no matter how much you move, bend or stretch the rubber, it will return to its original shape.

In order for the rubber to change properties and stiffen, it is combined with tiny balloons of liquid metal.

When the new smart material is twisted, bent or squeezed the balloons of liquid metal burst and the material hardens and an holds up to 50 times its weight.

Engineers say this can used in a medical setting to help the healing process in fractured bones.

“If you have a delicate tissue and you want to protect it. Then you can use that material and when that tissue is subject to some form of stress the material will change and it can protect that tissue,” Iowa State University assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering Martin Thou said.

Thou said the material can be used in a variety of industries. Protecting not only people but also fragile technology.

“Let’s say I want to put a very nice sensor on something like a planter, where it’s going to be used in the field but it’s a lot of vibrations, a lot of noise, how do you protect those delicate sensors? You can use a material like this as a casing and when the stress goes beyond a certain point you make sure that that valuable sensor doesn't break,” Thou said.

This new material is still in the development stages. Engineers say it will be a couple years before the material is available for public use.