Harvard scientists have created a 'smart' liquid: what it does and why it is needed - ForumDaily
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Harvard scientists have created a 'smart' liquid: what it does and why it is needed

Scientists at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a programmable metafluid with tunable elasticity, optical properties, viscosity, and even the ability to transition between Newtonian and non-Newtonian fluids, reports ScienceDaily.

Human Biology and pharmaceutical technology on laboratory background.

Photo: iStock.com/Credit:jittawit.21

Lem's living ocean is no longer fiction, but real science. Scientists have created the first meta-fluid of its kind. It uses a suspension of small elastomeric spheres ranging in size from 50 to 500 microns. They, deforming under pressure, radically change the characteristics of the liquid.

The metafluid can be used in everything from hydraulic actuators, robots, intelligent shock absorbers that can dissipate energy based on the intensity of an impact, to optical devices that can change from transparent to opaque. Find out about 6 historical mysteries to which scientists found the answer in 2023 from our ARTICLES.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

“We're just scratching the surface of what's possible with this new class of fluids,” said Adel Gellouli, a research fellow in materials science and mechanical engineering at SEAS and first author of the paper. “You can do a lot of different things in a lot of different areas with this metafluid.”

Metafluids vs solid metamaterials

Metamaterials are artificially created materials whose properties are determined by their structure, not composition. Metamaterials have been widely used in various applications for many years. But most materials, such as metal lenses, are hard. Read about the 25 most dangerous supermarket drinks in our material.

“Unlike solid metamaterials, metafluids have the unique ability to flow and adapt to the shape of their container,” explained Katia Bertoldi, professor of applied mechanics at SEAS and senior author of the paper. “Our goal was to create a metafluid that not only had these remarkable properties, but also provided a platform for programmable viscosity, compressibility, and optical properties.”

The research team made hundreds of thousands of these highly deformable spherical capsules filled with air and suspended them in silicone oil. When the pressure inside the liquid increases, the capsules collapse and form a lens-shaped hemisphere. When this pressure is released, the capsules return to their spherical shape.

Why is meta-fluid needed?

This transition changes many properties of the liquid, including its viscosity and opacity. These properties can be adjusted by changing the number, thickness and size of capsules in the liquid.


The researchers demonstrated the programmability of the liquid by loading it into a hydraulic robotic gripper and having it pick up a glass bottle, an egg and a blueberry. In a traditional hydraulic system powered by simple air or water, the robot would need some kind of sensor or external control to be able to adjust its grip and lift all three objects without crushing them.

But if there is a meta-fluid, no sensors are needed. The liquid itself reacts to different pressures and changes its compliance. This helps you adjust your grip strength so you can lift a heavy bottle, a delicate egg, or a small blueberry without additional programming.

“We show that we can use this liquid to give intelligence to a simple robot,” Gellouli said.

Optical properties and states of liquid

The meta-liquid changes its optical properties under the influence of changing pressure.
When the capsules are round, they scatter light and make the liquid opaque—similar to how air bubbles make sparkling water white. But when pressure is applied and the capsules are broken, they act like microlenses, focusing light and making the liquid transparent. These optical properties can be used for a range of applications, such as electronic ink that changes color depending on pressure.

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The researchers showed that when the capsules are spherical, the metafluid behaves like a Newtonian fluid, meaning its viscosity changes only with temperature. However, when the capsules collapse, the suspension turns into a non-Newtonian fluid. This means that its viscosity will change in response to shear stress - the higher it is, the more liquid it becomes. This is the first metafluid that makes the transition between Newtonian and non-Newtonian states.

Next, the researchers aim to study the acoustic and thermodynamic properties of the metafluid.

“The application space for these scalable and easy-to-produce metafluids is huge,” Bertoldi concluded.

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