Foam metal might turn airplanes into ‘Transformers’

"That's what this idea is about, to have a skeleton when you need it, melt it away when you don't, and then reform it," Rob Shepherd says. (Credit: GogDog/Flickr)

Imagine an aircraft that could alter its wing shape in midflight and, like a pelican, dive into the water before morphing into a submarine.

The key to making this Transformer-like fantasy a reality is a hybrid material featuring stiff metal and soft, porous rubber foam that combines the best properties of both: stiffness when it’s called for, and elasticity when a change of shape is required.

Metal Elastomer Composite from Ilse Mae on Vimeo.

The material also has the ability to self-heal following damage.

“It’s sort of like us—we have a skeleton, plus soft muscles and skin,” says Rob Shepherd, a Cornell University engineering professor. “Unfortunately, that skeleton limits our ability to change shape—unlike an octopus, which does not have a skeleton.”

The idea blends the rigidity and load-bearing capacity of humans with the ability to dramatically alter shape, like an octopus can.

“That’s what this idea is about, to have a skeleton when you need it, melt it away when you don’t, and then reform it,” Shepherd says.

His group’s work was published recently in Advanced Materials.

How it’s made

This hybrid material combines a soft alloy called Field’s metal with a porous silicone foam. In addition to its low melting point of 144 degrees Fahrenheit, Field’s metal was chosen because, unlike similar alloys, it contains no lead.

“In general, we want the things we make in this lab to be potentially biocompatible,” says Ilse Van Meerbeek, a graduate student in the field of mechanical engineering and the first author of the paper.

metal/foam compound
The metal/foam compound can be heated in order to change its shape, then cooled to regain stiffness. It has potential applications in soft robotics and aeronautics. (Credit: Rob Shepherd group)

The elastomer foam is dipped into the molten metal, then placed in a vacuum so that the air in the foam’s pores is removed and replaced by the alloy. The foam had pore sizes of about 2 millimeters; that can be tuned to create a stiffer or a more flexible material.

In testing of its strength and elasticity, the material showed an ability to deform when heated above 144 degrees, regain rigidity when cooled, then return to its original shape and strength when reheated.

Aircraft and robots

Shepherd says this material would be the skin for a morphing wing, giving a micro air vehicle (MAV) the ability to become an underwater vehicle on the fly.

“If you have a wing that’s really broad, you can’t do that because the wing will break off when it hits the water,” he says. “So you need to sweep it back, similar to what a puffin does, and then go under water. And using that new shape, it could be a propeller-driven ship.”

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In addition to a morphing-wing application, Van Meerbeek sees this material being used in soft robots that must negotiate tight spaces.

“It could be used in search-and-rescue robots,” she says. “It would be able to go into dangerous and/or unpredictable environments, and be able to go through narrow cracks, which rigid robots can’t do.”

“Sometimes you want a robot, or any machine, to be stiff,” adds Shepherd, whose group recently published a paper on electroluminescent skin, which also has applications in soft robotics. “But when you make them stiff, they can’t morph their shape very well. And to give a soft robot both capabilities, to be able to morph their structure but also to be stiff and bear load, that’s what this material does.”

Grants from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded the work.

Source: Cornell University