Keith Seffen, a lecturer in the school's engineering department, has created a range of solid materials that can morph into different shapes without losing functionality or strength. His prototypes include a thin, flexible computer display that can be rolled into a tube for easy storage in a briefcase or pocket. The approach uses metal that has been prestressed in such a way that it can be folded or rolled without using hinges or any locking mechanisms.
The researchers say the material features "sense memory" that allows it to be folded into the same configurations thousands of times without losing structural integrity. When needed, it snaps back into its original shape. These so-called "morphing structures" could even be used to construct a roll-up keyboard to match the hideaway display. Seffen claims the invention could pave the way for the world's first truly portable computers. The materials also could have applications in fields as diverse as aerospace engineering and packaging.
Building a mock-up of the system wasn't easy. Among the challenges that Seffen and his researchers had to overcome was figuring out how to create materials that retain their strength and stiffness while allowing for dramatic changes in shape. The work is being backed by Cambridge Display Technology, a U.K. developer of computer displays powered by polymer light-emitting diodes. The researchers have filed a patent application for the technology.