Global Economics

Cambridge Probes "Morphing Materials"


Future commuters could be set to swap opening the morning paper for unfurling a laptop screen as the roll-up laptop takes one more step towards reality.

University of Cambridge engineers have developed a series of 'morphing materials' with the ability to change from one shape to another. With the right electronics in place these thin sheets of metal could allow you to download a document to your phone and then unroll a display screen to view it.

Dr Keith Seffen, lecturer in structural engineering, has developed these materials with a small team at the University of Cambridge and told silicon.com: "It will complement the arrival of flexible displays in the future."

Folding structures are already common on the market place: click open your laptop and it doubles in size, pull open your PDA and a keyboard appears.

The more hinges you put on a structure the smaller it will become with space for an increasing number of features. Seffen said "you have the extra freedom to store things in a much more efficient way". But Seffen points out that hinges present weak points on a structure.

Rolling devices can be thought of as having an infinite number of hinges, without any of the weaknesses, he said. Dropping your laptop would no longer be a colossal dilemma.

Seffen said: "By making flexible materials we are also making the structure more robust."

The morphing materials currently developed can hold three permanent structures, or 'tri-stables'. With quad-stables (holding four permanent structures) being a future possibility.

So could you ever use your folding laptop to do, say, origami when you're stuck on the Tube? Probably not, said Seffen: "There will be a limitation."

There are still concerns over the integrity of the structure, having a laptop screen unexpectedly unfurl in your trouser pocket could be an eye-watering experience. And Seffen conceded that "at the moment" absolute structural stability has not yet been achieved.

Mathematical principles are currently being developed by the Cambridge team to predict what will happen and detail the material's limits.

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