Smart Biomimetic Materials

Materials Science

Nature has devised mechanisms for active locomotion of plants, typically observed with rapid movements for prey and defense, or with very slow movements during growth. Passive motility includes seeds of some plants that snap, buckle, and explode to disperse or burrow themselves in the soil in response to periodic changes in humidity and/or temperature. The awns of the wheat and needle-and-thread grass, for instance, are effective drillers that are capable of self-cultivation by propelling themselves into the soil. Other disseminules are capable of migration by reversibly changing their shape and disperse by creeping, crawling, ratcheting, buckling, or slithering. These and other natural dynamic processes that have been perfected over millennia are the inspiration for the design of artificial architectures that harness the operational principles, structural hierarchy, and functional sophistication of the living organisms for applications that range from electronics, medicine, and architecture, to everyday life.

This project will explore the mechanism(s) of energy transduction by selected natural systems as a model to prepare new classes of biomimetic and bioinspired smart materials, which can be utilized to construct simple actuating devices that mimic biogenic systems. The project will specifically focus on smart materials that use biomimetic principles to harness light or humidity to generate motion or to collect water. Note that this research is the preparatory stage of several research projects and does not include experimental work. The student will use the extensive information resources available at the Harvard libraries to search and collect literature information that will help to prepare the actual research projects. The student is also expected to help with editing and correction of funding proposals and research manuscripts.

A student with a background in chemistry, biology, or mechanical engineering will complement the principal investigator’s background in materials science and will add value to prepare the research projects on smart biomimetic materials. The student will be involved in a highly multidisciplinary, creative, and original research project and will be exposed to disciplines other than those covered by her or his major. In our past experience in working with undergrads, for the students majoring in science, the added value of working on a multidisciplinary project is that they are exposed to the applied aspects of the research, while for students from engineering, is that they get immersed in the art of sciences like chemistry and physics. In addition to the literature search and sharing of the results, the student is expected to attend biweekly group meetings and to present her or his results to the group.