This material does weird things under pressure

Microcube is designed so that pressure makes it expand instead of compress

microcube diagram

SQUEEZE PLAY  This weird new metamaterial achieves the counterintuitive feat of expanding when squeezed.

J. Qu, Muamer Kadic and Martin Wegener

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A newly fabricated material does more than just hold up under pressure. Unlike many ordinary objects that shrink when squeezed, the metamaterial — a synthetic structure designed to exhibit properties not typically found in natural materials — expands at higher pressures.

This counterintuitive material is made up of a grid of hollow 3-D crosses — shaped like six-way pipe fittings — mere micrometers across. When surrounding pressure of air, water or some other substance increases, the crosses’ circular surfaces bow inward. Because of the way these crosses are connected with levers, that warping forces the crosses to rotate and push away from each other, causing the whole structure to expand, says study coauthor Jingyuan Qu, a physicist at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

The researchers were “very clever about how they connected this quite complex set of structural elements,” says Michael Haberman, a mechanical engineer at the University of Texas at Austin, who wasn’t involved in the work.

Qu and colleagues fashioned a microcube of their metamaterial, described in a paper accepted to Physical Review X, from a plasticlike substance, using a microversion of 3-D printing. When the researchers placed the material inside a gas chamber and cranked up the air pressure from one bar (about the atmospheric pressure at sea level) to five bars, the cube’s volume increased by about 3 percent.

Until now, researchers have only described such pressure-expanding metamaterials in mathematical models or computer simulations, says Joseph Grima, a materials scientist at the University of Malta in Msida not involved in the work. The new metamaterial provides “much-needed proof” that this type of stuff can actually be fabricated, he says.

Adjusting the thickness of the crosses’ surfaces could make this new metamaterial more or less expandable: The thicker it is, the less the structure expands. A metamaterial fine-tuned to stay the same size under a wide range of pressures could be used to build equipment that withstands the crushing pressures of the deep sea or the vacuum of outer space.

PRESSURE’S ON Under increasing pressure, the hollow 3-D crosses of this metamaterial deform and twist away from each other, making the whole lattice expand, as seen in this simulation. J. Qu, M. Kadic and M. Wegener

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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