Harvard University researchers have announced the development of a new 3D material capable of bending and folding without input from human controllers. When the new material lays flat, it is strong enough to withstand the weight of a fully grown elephant. When needed, it can alter its size, shape and volume, folding open into any desired shape

Further development could lead to entire portable houses that can fit into backpacks, as well as walls that can form windows or open ceilings with just the flick of a switch.

"This structural system has fascinating implications for dynamic architecture, including portable shelters, adaptive building facades, and retractable roofs. Whereas current approaches to these applications rely on standard mechanics, this technology offers unique advantages such as how it integrates surface and structure, its inherent simplicity of manufacture, and its ability to fold flat," said Chuck Hoberman of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.

The new material was inspired by snapology, a technique utilized in origami. Cubes within the structure possess a total of 24 faces and 36 edges. The structure can be folded along hinge-like edges, resulting in a wide range of possible final forms.

The unfolding process can be activated by electricity, water or heat, providing additional flexibility in real-world applications. As the structure unfolds, it is capable of altering its density. Because of this, flexible or stiff structures can be created from identical material. The research team was able to determine exactly what actuation approaches are required for tasks.

Investigators developed a structure measuring four cubes on each side, but they believe their new technology could easily be scaled up to larger units. This means it may be possible to develop smaller versions of the 3D material that could be manufactured for use on the nanoscale. This technology could also be used in the design of everything from small devices such as a new generation of surgical stents to larger structures, including surgical tents. Each use of the new 3D material could prove invaluable in disaster areas, where space is at a minimum and transportation resources are scarce.

Development of the new self-actuating material was profiled in the journal Nature Communications.

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