A breakthrough new material developed by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley can change color based on small amounts of force applied to its skin. By making small etchings on a super-thin silicon film embedded in a flexible membrane, the material’s producers can choose what colors were reflected depending on how the material was manipulated.
The colors we see are those reflected back at us by the objects we’re viewing, while all others become absorbed. The Berkeley team etched ridges onto a 120 nanometer-thick silicon semiconductor, embedded in a flexible silicone layer. That allowed them to specifically control what colors would be reflected when certain amounts of force are applied.
While most color changes which with we’re familiar are to due chemical alterations, the ability to physically manipulate wavelengths of light using nanostructures has previously been limited to certain kinds of insects.
“This is the first time anybody has made a flexible chameleon-like skin that can change color simply by flexing it,” says co-author Connie J. Chang-Hasnain. “If you have a surface with very precise structures, spaced so they can interact with a specific wavelength of light, you can change its properties and how it interacts with light by changing its dimensions.”
The breakthrough, described in the scientific journal Optica, carries a number of potential commercial applications. Perhaps the most obvious is the potential for adaptive camouflage for use by military and law enforcement. The material could also be used for innovative advertising, or made into unique, eye-catching displays at sporting events or concerts.
The material could also have engineering potential. It could be developed into easily-observable sensors to indicate the stress working on critical points in construction, automotive or aeronautic assemblies, or to identify damaged areas in need of immediate attention.
“The next step is to make this larger-scale and there are facilities already that could do so,” says Chang-Hasnain. “At that point, we hope to be able to find applications in entertainment, security, and monitoring.”
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