Mysterious Material Remembers Its Shape

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By TechNewsDaily Staff

A weird new lab-made substance acts like a liquid in air, but is solid in water. Credit: Luo Lab

A strange new substance acts like a liquid when exposed to air, but takes a solid shape when it's dunked in water.

The new stuff is a metamaterial,

scientists' word for a lab-made material that has properties

uncommon in nature. Even among metamaterials, however, this material is unusual –

it's composed of artificial DNA, while most metamaterials are composed of

nonbiological chemicals such as silicon or copper. Its creators are

calling it a "meta-hydrogel."

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In the future, metamaterials made of biological stuff could go into soft, flexible circuits, according to a statement from

Cornell University, where the meta-hydrogel was made. Because they have

pores in which drug molecules could fit, meta-hydrogels could help

release medicines slowly inside the body, the statement said.  

Adding to its unusual properties, the new meta-hydrogel remembers its

original shape. If it's made in a mold, it will return to its original,

molded shape every time it's doused in water, even after researchers

expose it to air — and force it into its liquidlike state — several

times. The researchers made a video that shows the meta-hydrogel firming up into letters when a researcher adds water to it.

To get the meta-hydrogel to take on a new solid shape, the gel’s

creators heat it to 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 degrees Celsius) and set

it in new molds.

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When a team of Cornell engineers first mixed the chemicals to make

their meta-hydrogel, they didn't know it would act so strangely. "This

was not by design," Dan Luo, the lead scientist in the research, said.

Luo and his colleagues have used synthetic DNA to make hydrogels, or

gels composed mostly of water, before. This time, they wanted to make a

DNA hydrogel with a different microscopic structure. It was only after

they created their meta-hydrogel that they discovered its unique

abilities, the researchers wrote in a paper they published Dec. 2 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

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