Harvard scientists invented a material that ‘remembers’ its shape

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Harvard

Scientists at Harvard are claiming they’ve invented a new “wool-like” fabric that changes shape and, if I’m being completely honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. First off, how the hell can a fabric have a memory and, secondly, what does that even mean?

A post on Harvard’s website uses hair as a metaphor in an attempt to clarify. If you straighten your hair — and your hair gets wet in the rain — it eventually goes back to its original shape, whether that’s curly or wavy or whatever.

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Apparently that’s because hair has “shape memory”.

Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have created a fibrous material that does much the same thing. The hope? This new material could be used in clothes to help reduce waste in the fashion industry. The example the Harvard article uses: a one-size all fits t-shirt that could automatically shrink or expand to fit to a person’s specific measurements. Or how about self-fitting bras or underwear?

The secret is keratin, a protein found in hair and nails. The scientists took keratin from recycled wool and 3D printed the material into specific shapes. The above video shows one keratin sheet, 3D printed into an origami star, scrunched up, then placed into water. Slowly it transforms back into something resembling its original shape.

“This makes the material suitable for a vast range of applications from textile to tissue engineering,” said Luca Cera, a bioengineer at Harvard and author on the paper. 

“With this project, we have shown that not only can we recycle wool but we can build things out of the recycled wool that have never been imagined before,” added Kit Parker, the senior author on the paper. “The implications for the sustainability of natural resources are clear. With recycled keratin protein, we can do just as much, or more, than what has been done by shearing animals to date and, in doing so, reduce the environmental impact of the textile and fashion industry.”

You can read the full study here.

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