Researchers at the University of Michigan are studying plants that move in an attempt to use their natural hydraulic motion to build new structures that can change and adapt their shape on their own. This study in biomimicry is focusing on vegetation like the Mimosa plant, which bends its leaves when they are touched. Researchers are hoping to be able to create adaptive structures which mimic these motions. The resulting structures would alter their shape — from flexible to rigid — in changing environments and situations.

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“This is quite different from other traditional adaptive materials approaches,” Kon-Well Wang, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University of Michigan, said. “In general, people use solid-state materials to make adaptive structures. This is really a unique concept inspired by biology.”

Plants use water to make their cells expand and contract in response to touch or changing environments. The Mimosa plant uses the movement of water to collapse certain cells and expand others in response to touch, it is one of many plants that exhibits “nastic motions,” or large movements that one can see with the naked eye as they occur.

Wang and his team are attempting to recreate this phenomenon using microstructures and nanofibers, they want to, “put it all together to create hyper-cellular structures with circulatory networks,” Wang said. These nanoscale hydraulic networks would allow structures to change naturally and without a manual or computerized cue. The team is hoping to use their new technology to build snake-like robots that could maneuver through tunnels and then turn rigid to grasp a hold of something. They’re also envisioning a new kind of airplane with flexible wings like a bird that could adapt their wing shape to changing conditions.

Via Science Daily