Water-reactive material opens and closes like a pinecone

Many material designers look at nature for inspiration, whether it is to use raw materials from it or to mimic interesting features for innovative materials. Chao Chen, product design student at Royal College of Art (UK), falls in the latter category. Inspired by pinecones, he designed a material that shapeshifts when it comes into contact with water last year.

When walking in the forest, you have probably noticed the difference between a dry and a wet pinecone before. The scales are open when it is dry, but when it comes into contact with water, the pinecone closes its scales to protect the seeds inside.
Chen discovered that the pinecone scales consist of two layers. When the outer layer gets wet, it elongates more than the inner layer, causing the pinecone to close itself.

Chen decided to try to mimic it without making it high-tech. Using a layer of fabric, a thin film and veneer, he crated a laminate that reacts to water in the same way as the pinecone. When the veneer takes in water, the fibers expand perpendicular to the grain, elongating and curving.

Chen also thought up ways to incorporate the material in products. He designed a Water-Reacting Shelter, in which tiles from the water-reactive material open when it is nice and sunny outside, but provide shelter in the rain, as they close up the roof.

In a second project, Chen placed the tiles in front of a coloured surface. When it rains and the tiles deform, the colours become visible.

The last project with the water-reactive material is for people who forget to water their plants. A strip of the material is placed in the soil. When the soil is too dry, the strip stands up straight, revealing a red side. If the soil is wet, the strip is limp and shows a green side.

Chen still needs to find a way to make the material more durable, but the prototype shows much promise already.

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