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When Watching Grass Grow Starts Paying Off

By Jason Mueller - Monday, February 21, 2011

How Plant’s Defensive Responses Reveal Engineering Secre

Stephan P. Tomoshenko, a collegiate mechanical engineering professor, alongside the Chair of his Mechanical Engineering Department Kon-Well Wang, have been watching plants grow in an effort to learn how to build more adaptive structures for the future. On the 19th of February, 2011, Wang presented a revolutionary concept of mechanical engineering at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Washington D.C.

“In general, people use solid-state materials to make adaptive structures. This is a really unique concept inspired by biology,” Wang stated in regard to his study of the Mimosa plant that visibly moves in response to stimuli such as touch.

Researchers at Penn State and also at U-M are hard at work trying to replicate the processes by which cells of plants adjust and “move” in artificial cells that they’ve created anywhere as small as three and a half to four inches in diameter and larger. Their next steps will include using nanotechnology to create micro cells in comparison to those they’ve developed using nanofibers and microstructures. Once the hurdle of size is tackled and effective building materials can be developed which are composed of cells that mimic biological processes of movement through “mini-hydraulics”, their next goal is to replicate how plants heal themselves in an artificial set of cells.

Wang believes that it can be done, though openly admits, “it’s not easy to engineer an object or machine to completely change the way it’s organized,” when referencing developments on artificial cells that heal themselves over time.

Regardless, advances are being made in duplicating the process by which plants use their own form of “mini-hydraulics” to change shape in response to environmental changes. The Mimosa plant in particular that Wang has been studying will curl upwards when touched. It accomplishes this by channeling water from some of its cells inward towards the stem, flattening and curling the leaf while fattening the stem almost unnoticeably. These movements are quick and observable by the naked human eye which makes them ideal processes to study from the point of structural adaptability. Given more research in the area, Wang’s self-proclaimed intention is, “to create hyper-cellular structures with circulatory networks”.


Applications for structures and building materials are at no loss: some examples used when describing the project were robots that can change shape and airplanes with wings that morph to mimic birds’ wings. For instance, a robot that could snake its way through cracks in walls as easily as it can stand upright is entirely possible. Flapping airplane wings may be far-stretched, but more flexible and adaptable wing structures only increase the likelihood of staying in the air in the case of an in-flight collision.

Another possibility could be building “I” beams that shrink tighter in response to heavy wind or rain, thus making the structure denser and more resilient against incoming debris or severe wind damage. Similarly, structural cell systems could be formed that sense earthquakes which in turn could cause buildings to “shrink” temporarily and increase structural stability and density to the point where no serious damage can occur. Possibilities are endless and this concept is just now being born, let alone hitting infancy.

Expect some really great things to come of Wang and his team in the future.

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