With a new smart textile from Harvard University, materials that can be deformed and then return to their original state as desired, such as shape memory alloys, may mean major things for aerospace, robotics and even fashion. The programmable material, made from leftover wool items, can be bent out of shape in response to stimului and bounce back to its original form, with the team planning on putting it to use in shape-shifting clothing that can respond to various scenarios.

The team began by printing 3D keratin sheets in various sizes, with these being programmed as their “permanent” state by placing them in a hydrogen peroxide and monosodium phosphate solution. From there, the materials can be temporarily shaped into different forms, in response to various stimuli.

In one experiment, the team permanently set a keratin sheet as a complex origami star. However, as the star was immersed in water, it unfolded and acquired a malleable shape, causing it to roll into a tight tube which became its own stable and usable structure as the sheet dried. The tube was then reinserted into the bath, which allowed it to unroll and fold back into the original origami star.

This two-step method of 3D printing the material and then creating its permanent shapes makes the manufacture of very complicated forms with structural characteristics down to micron level. This makes the material suited for a wide variety of applications from textile to tissue engineering.

It can be used for making brassieres with customizable shapes and cup sizes, one-size-fits all t-shirts, or clothes with air vents that open in reaction to moisture. They hope, this will help fix waste in the apparel industry and also do better with recycled keratin protein to decrease the pollution and the environmental impact of the textile and fashion industry.