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Already tired of 3D printing? US researchers, military investigating 4D printing

Researchers at three US engineering schools have received a grant from the military to investigate the possibilities of 4D printing.

The research team, which includes scientists from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the University of Illinois, have been granted $855,000 (£536,471) from the United States Army Research Office to find possible uses and methods for undertaking the process.

With plain old 3D printing only just hitting the mainstream, the research is still at a very theoretical stage. Since the fourth dimension is time, the research hopes to uncover materials that will adapt and change based on their environment. Using "responsive fillers embedded within a stimuli-responsive hydrogel", the team believes it can develop materials such as a form camouflage that changes its pattern and colour depending on its surroundings, or a textile that becomes more or less insulating depending on temperatures.

"Rather than construct a static material or one that simply changes its shape, we're proposing the development of adaptive, biomimetic composites that re-programme their shape, properties or functionality on demand, based upon external stimuli," said principal investigator Anna C Balazs, PhD.

Existing 3D printing technology will play a big part in the research. The team hopes to achieve its aims by attempting to "manipulate materials at nano and micro levels in order to produce, via 3D printing, materials that can modify their own structures over time at the macro level."

For the US military, $855,000 is the equivalent of pocket change, and represents a tepid enthusiasm surrounding the possibilities of 4D printing. Still, with the Navy undertaking tests on 3D printing ammunition and small drones on board ships, it's fair to say that the world best-funded military machine is looking pretty far into the future.

The Army Research Office describes itself as conducting "long-range planning for research, development, and acquisition" through an "aggressive basic science research programme."

Possible military applications for the technology include equipment that can assemble itself, and camouflage material that could bend light around concealed soldiers or ordnance, as well as adaptive clothing for army personnel operating in tough environments.

Civilian uses could of course be even broader, but with the research only just beginning, it's unlikely that 4D printing will be hitting shop shelves any time soon.

Image: Flickr (Aranda\Lasch); Jason Hise