A new material could completely change your experience of colour in the physical world

Developed by engineers from the University of California at Berkeley, this chameleon-like artificial skin changes colour as a minute amount of force is applied. Image: The Optical Society (OSA)

Engineers have created a thin, chameleon-like material which can be made to change colour on demand by applying a minute amount of force.

“This is the first time anybody has made a flexible chameleon-like skin that can change colour simply by flexing it,” said Connie J. Chang-Hasnain, a member of the research team University of California at Berkeley.

By etching features, smaller than a wavelength of light, onto a silicon film one thousand times thinner than a human hair, the researchers were able to select the range of colours the material would reflect, depending on how it was flexed and bent.

“If you have a surface with very precise structures, spaced so they can interact with a specific wavelength of light, you can change its properties and how it interacts with light by changing its dimensions,” said Chang-Hasnain.

The initial design created brilliant colours which can be shifted from green to yellow, orange and red across a 39-nanometre range of wavelengths.

Future designs, the researchers believe, could cover a wider range of colours and reflect light with even greater efficiency.

“The next step is to make this larger-scale and there are facilities already that could do so,” said Chang-Hasnain. “At that point, we hope to be able to find applications in entertainment, security, and monitoring.”

For consumers, the material could be used in a new class of display technologies, adding brilliant colour presentations to outdoor entertainment venues.

It also may be possible to create an active camouflage on the exterior of vehicles that would change colour to better match the surrounding environment.

More day-to-day applications could include sensors which would change colour to indicate that structural fatigue was stressing critical components on bridges, buildings or the wings of aircraft.

“This is the first time anyone has achieved such a broad range of colour on a one-layer, thin and flexible surface,” said Change-Hasnain. “I think it’s extremely cool.”

The new material is announced in a paper published in Optica, the Optical Society’s journal.

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