Nature-inspired camouflage changes its looks with light

Thin, flexible material steals the color-shifting capabilities of cephalopod skin

MATERIAL IN MOTION  By mimicking the structure of cephalopod skin, materials scientists create an ultra-thin, flexible material that can copy light patterns in the environment.

J. Rogers/Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Scientists have swiped the secrets of certain sea creatures’ cloaking skills to create their own camouflaging material.

Some cephalopods, such as cuttlefish, can mimic colors and patterns in their environment using three-layered skin. Each layer, researchers previously found, has its own role: light-detecting cells at the skin’s lower surface trigger muscle cells in the middle to adjust pigment cells at the top. 

Now researchers led by materials scientist John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have copied that format using silicon and a polymer. A bottom layer of photodetectors sense light and send wee electrical currents to actuators in the middle. These tiny devices convert the electrical signal to heat, which prompts a chemical in the top layer to change color. The researchers say the thin flexible material could be useful in everything from military camouflage to wallpaper.

The results appear August 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Using cephalopod skin as a blueprint, materials scientists created a thin, flexible material that can respond to changes in light. Here, the material replicates light patterns shone on it by a flashlight.

Video courtesy of Fedor Kleber/YouTube; Cunjiang Yu et al/PNAS 2014

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