TribLIVE

| News

 
Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

Shape-shifting gels that move help Pitt researchers take fiction out of science

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 10:32 p.m.
 

Shape-shifting gels that run away from light might sound like science fiction, but University of Pittsburgh researchers say computer models suggest fiction is morphing into fact.

Anna Balazs, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and Olga Kuksenok, an engineering research professor at Pitt, said they looked to nature for inspiration when working with hydrogels — compounds widely used in contact lenses, membranes, glue and medical testing devices that rely on fluid technologies.

They wanted to find out whether a man-made product could mirror behavior seen in the mimic octopus, a shape-shifting ocean creature that can imitate the shape, color and texture of at least 15 creatures ranging from the lionfish to sea floor algae.

Such actions long have been a holy grail for researchers.

“Overall we are very interested in designing materials that mimic biology,” Balazs said.

Josianne Romasco, aquarist keeper at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, isn't surprised that researchers looked to an octopus for inspiration. Although the zoo doesn't house a mimic octopus, it has octopi with varying abilities.

“Roboticists have come here to study them. And with their ability to change color and camouflage themselves, they're just very interesting creatures,” Romasco said.

Creating manufactured materials that could mimic such a response to external stimuli could have wide-ranging implications for everything from soft robotics to medical testing devices, Balazs said.

For the octopus, the ability to mimic its surroundings is a matter of surviving threats from predators and thriving in a sometimes hostile sea. For manufactured products, Balazs said it could mean repurposing materials and reducing production costs.

She and Kuksenok collaborated on a two-year study of hydrogels and recently published the results in the journal, Advanced Functional Materials.

Their study tapped physics, chemistry, biology and computational science, using computer models to examine the behavior of a hydrogel first made in 2007.

“The gels we were looking at were in the micron to millimeter scale,” Balazs said. “When you move the light over them from left to right, and take several swipes over them, they shrink and move in the direction opposite the light.”

The finding, she said, suggests new ways of shaping and molding gels.

Kuksenok and Balazs also found that by using different lights, they could reconfigure gels for another use. That quality could reduce manufacturing costs, Balazs said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.

 

 

 


Show commenting policy

Most-Read Allegheny

  1. Western Pa.’s ties to 2016 White House race extend beyond Santorum
  2. Child falls through window in Marshall-Shadeland, taken to Children’s
  3. Water line bursts at Allegheny General Hospital
  4. Filing in Scaife case challenges subpoena request by his children
  5. $1B rapid bridge replacement across Pa. aims for savings, safety
  6. Former Steelers lineman Hartings to be honored for youth volunteering
  7. Penn, Butler come alive at final OpenStreets event in Pittsburgh
  8. Amtrak still working to add bicycle racks to Western Pa. train routes
  9. Path to authenticity led North Side pastor to God
  10. Gaming funds OK’d for ‘promising’ firms in Allegheny County
  11. Dormont, Millvale want grocers closer to home