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Plant’s Motions Could Lead To Adaptive Technology

February 21, 2011

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Penn State University have been studying a species of shape-changing plant that they believe can help them develop a new breed of structures that can twist, turn, bend, stiffen, and otherwise adapt to their environments.

According to a press release from the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based educational institution, the Mimosa plant, which folds its leaves on contact through a phenomenon known as nastic motions, could result in robots that could maneuver through tight spaces and then change their shape to grab hold of something or airplane wings that can alter their shape similar to the way birds do.

Their findings were presented this past weekend at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Washington DC by Kon-Well Wang, a mechanical engineering professor and department chair at the University of Michigan.

“This and several other characteristics of plant cells and cell walls have inspired us to initiate ideas that could concurrently realize many of the features that we want to achieve for adaptive structures,” Wang said during his Saturday presentation, according to AFP Reporter Jean-Louis Santini.

Wang explained that the phenomenon was “made possible by osmosis, the flow of water in and out of plants’ cells.”

According to the professor, the plant reacts to touch or another similar catalyst by shifting water out of certain cells and into others, collapsing the former and expanding the latter. Those shifts, which as visible to the naked eye, “allow the plants to move and change shape on a larger scale,” Wang said.

By learning more about the Mimosa plant and its nastic movements, the researchers believe they can discover ways to simulate the effect in modern technology.

“Currently we are looking at basic research only, but there are some applications that we have in mind,” Wang said. “You cannot make a plane wing deform to be able to achieve optimum flight condition in different scenario”¦ [but] this kind of technology could help that because we can make the wing active and change its mechanical properties.”

“This is quite different from other traditional adaptive materials approaches,” he added, according to Santini. “In general, people use solid-state materials to make adaptive structures. This is really a unique concept inspired by biology”¦ We want to put it all together to create hyper-cellular structures with circulatory networks.”

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