Structure: The future of wearable materials

Introducing invisibility cloaks; changing material structure can create new functions
19 March 2019

Interview with 

Jess Wade, Imperial College London


3D printed houses


We explored a traditional way of making something, but technology now lets us go further: we can 3D print objects with great precision and control their all important structure. Jess Wade from Imperial College joined Izzie Clarke in the studio and brought a colourful object with her...

Jess - Yeah, it's kind of a bizarre pair of 3D printed pliers. I would say I seem to have deformed with my enthusiasm to play with it.

Izzie - They were functioning earlier. It's almost as if someone's done an outline of traditional pliers but actually it’s all one bit; there's no screws in there whatsoever.

Jess - Exactly. It’s something called Computer Aided Design. So you draw out your structure on a computer and you basically print it like you print at home anyway, but instead of an ink cartridge you’ve got a plastic filament, and then you direct that onto some kind of substrate and you end up with this 3D printed form of pliers. And, as you mention, you can impart a huge amount of strength by being clever about the way that you design it, clever about the way that you print it so the kind of axis that you printed along, and clever about these funny little structures that you have inside it kind of give it the extra strength. Maybe a kind of honeycomb structure on the inside so that it's more robust.

Izzie -  So a usual pair of pliers; you've almost got two bits of metal and right in the middle you've got a screw and that's what gives it their functionality. Here, where you would expect a screw we've got this nice little mesh which is different from the structure of the rest of the printed material and that's what's actually able to make it move in the way that we would expect it to?

Jess - Exactly. So you just have to be a bit clever in the way that you design it so you can impart the functionality later, but I guess that's where we're going with materials now in general. We're thinking much more about the way that we fabricate them and engineer them to give them some special properties that they didn't have before.

Izzie - Why is it so different to be using the structure and shape of materials in this way?

Jess - Because I think for a long time, and certainly coming off the back of that description that we have before thinking about the way that we used to make swords and everything like that, we had materials and we took them and made them smaller. We went from the top and work down, and now we can go from the bottom and work upwards and we can really think about what functionality we want that material to have and then design it at a really atomic level to give it those properties. So the kind of fantastic, mysterious, science-fiction ones are these metamaterials where you can create structures where the spacing between individual elements is less than the wavelength of a light that you want to look at. And when you do that you can give it these really bizarre physics properties where you can start playing, not only with with the electric field of the lightwave that we usually play around with with the normal material, but also the magnetic fields. So you can do such crazy things if you engineer at such a tiny scale that actually it's really exciting, both as a challenge for physicists but also in thinking about the ways that we can use them in modern life. And I think now that materials, in general, whether it's something for physics, and maybe people who listen to this radio programme have heard of this idea of optical cloaking and invisibility cloaks. But now people are thinking about the way we could put it into the materials that we use everyday so going towards wearable technology but much more thinking about the functionality of fabrics and I think that's really exciting area of science too.

Izzie -  Now you sort of threw that in there -  an invisibility cloak. We started off with a pair of pliers so this is obviously looking at that structure. So what are some of those new applications of new materials are closely linked to their structure?

Jess - The invisibility cloak is an interesting one right. This is where you are taking individual elements and spacing them, like I said, less than the wavelength of light. And when you create these kind of structures you can have materials that don't just do the normal things we used to like absorb and reflect light. We’re happy with that, that's what most things do; that's how we see that they're there, but you can actually have materials that actually force light to bend around that structure. And this is the idea of the invisibility cloak that if you had the right spacing in the material that you fabricated, light would be kind of navigated around the edges of whatever you’d created so that you be able to see as if it wasn't there, as if you just looking straight through it.

The application's not only Harry Potter style, but are also ones you could use it surgery to able to let people see beyond an organ or something like that and see around it. I think the more exciting ones for me are the ones where people are, I mentioned it a bit that embedding them into clothing. I met an incredible designer who is at the Royal College of Art and the Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design, and she's called Laura Salisbury, and she's creating this knitwear that is designed to rehabilitate people who have suffered from stroke. So it's designed to stimulate things inside your arms or where ever you need it, so that you can rehab faster, and I just think that's the neatest thing ever.

I also met a phenomenal researcher from South Korea called Mi Jung Lee who is looking at ways that you can create memory from woven fabric. So you have each piece of thread as if it's an electrode and you can create kind of volatile memory systems, which is just incredible.

Izzie - Oh my goodness!

Jess - So it's taking materials that we can now impart some functionality into in a flexible way and it's saying this is what we been doing for a really long time. And, actually, we can solve new problems now with these materials, and I think it's so exciting.

Izzie - Is this the future then of wearable material technology? I mean, how close is it to reality and how soon could  be seen things like this?

Jess - I think we are completely there, at reality. I think right now it’s pretty niche to take these materials whether it's for sports rehab or because you want to have some kind of memory system in your shirt sleeve. But I think we’re completely there scientifically and we just need a better interaction with designers and scientists to make it happen completely everyday.


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