According to The New York Times, scientists at Case Western University have created a material that stiffens from a soft state when stimulated. It can also do the reverse, from pliable to rigid. This material, we read, was inspired by the skin of sea cucumbers.
That skin is a nanocomposite material, consisting of tiny fibers of collagen embedded in a softer matrix. When the animal secretes certain chemicals, the fibers form bonds and the whole matrix stiffens.
In their work, described in Science, Dr. Weder and his colleagues used cellulose nanofibers in a polymer matrix. A major difficulty, Dr. Weder said, was having the nanofibers distributed properly, “like a three-dimensional spider web.”
For the time being, experiments on it mainly involve finding new ways to treat Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders.
Hopefully to no one's surprise, we wonder if they can be used as a building and landscape construction material. An entire city built on sea cucumber-like skins.
Perhaps in next year's City of the Future competition, a brash, up-and-coming design firm will propose encasing San Diego in “stimuli-responsive polymer nanocomposites” so that when the next 10.1 earthquake comes along, the whole city contracts to protect itself.
No, wait — shouldn't that be the other way around? From a hard state to a more elastic state to better ride out the tectonic hurricane? When the tremors end, houses, highways and sewers revert back to their solid state with nary a crack. But if there are any, the sea cucumber polymer matrix will simply patch things up, healing itself, as it were.
Or has someone proposed this already?
In between seismic events, some kind of architectural hacking might ensue.