How Smart Morphable Surfaces Work


Smart Morphable Surfaces and Cars
This sphere is made of soft polymer with a hollow center, and a thin coating of a stiffer polymer. It becomes dimpled when the air is pumped out of the hollow center, causing it to shrink.
This sphere is made of soft polymer with a hollow center, and a thin coating of a stiffer polymer. It becomes dimpled when the air is pumped out of the hollow center, causing it to shrink.
Pedro Reis/MIT

Unlike a golf ball or my Aunt Mabel's thighs (both of which are dimpled all the time), a smorph can switch between being smooth or wrinkled, depending on the volume of the material inside it. A golf ball doesn't need to do this, because it rarely goes above a speed where its dimples stop improving its aerodynamics. Cars, on the other hand, can go much faster than golf balls. At high speeds, the dimples actually increase wind resistance. And that's why we told you to hold off on adding your own dimples to your car. When you hit the freeway, those homemade dents will start to slow you down.

Researchers think that smorphs will allow the exterior of a car to adjust in order to minimize drag and maximize aerodynamics, depending on the conditions. If the car is going relatively slowly, the smorph can bring out its dimples and reduce both drag and the amount of energy the car needs to move. When the car goes faster, the smorph can smooth itself out to allow the car to slip through the air. Sensors on the outside of the car can read wind resistance and adjust the car's skin as needed.

Cars today are designed to be as aerodynamic as they can be in most situations. But what the car gains in general aerodynamics, it loses in aerodynamics for specific situations. A car with a smorph skin could constantly change to become as efficient as possible, regardless of conditions.

Cars with smart morphable surfaces are still a ways off, but smorphs do open some exciting possibilities for not only automotive design, but also aerospace engineering and even building materials. A building with a smorphable surface, for example, might be able to withstand high winds better than one made with traditional materials.

Neat, huh? And you thought your cellulite wasn't doing anything for you.

Author's Note: How Smart Morphable Surfaces Work

When you're thinking about how to improve fuel economy for cars, most people home in on the technology that actually moves the car — or what fuels it. It's only recently, with the use of materials like aluminum and carbon fiber on mass-market cars, that we've started to question whether the materials that we use to build cars can contribute to improved efficiency. When most people imagine the car of the future, they think of a super slick automobile slicing through traffic. A shape-shifting car with dimpled skin may not have quite the same Tron-esque feel or look, but it certainly makes me feel better about the dent I put in my fender while trying to parallel park last week.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Bennington-Castro, Joseph. "Smart Morphable Surfaces Can Dimple at Will." MRS Bulletin. 39. 8. 655–655. August 2014. (Oct. 20, 2014) http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9319822&fileId=S0883769414001766
  • Chandler, David L. "Morphable Surfaces Could Cut Air Resistance." MIT News. June 24, 2014. (Oct. 20, 2014) http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/morphable-surfaces-could-cut-air-resistance-0624
  • Hard, Andrew. "That's Not Bubblegum; It's MIT's 'Morphable' Automotive Skin of the Future." Digital Trends. July 29, 2014. (Oct. 20, 2014) http://www.digitaltrends.com/cars/smorph/
  • Stockton, Nick. "Tomorrow's Fastest Cars Could Be Covered in Morphable Skins." Wired. July 24, 2014. (Oct. 20, 2014) http://www.wired.com/2014/07/the-futures-fastest-cars-could-be-covered-in-morphable-skins/

More to Explore