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US engineers design 'octopus' camouflage material

The University of Illinois has developed a new colour changing material which it predicts could have architectural uses

Scientists from the University of Illinois have produced a sheet comprised of 1mm-sized cells which mimic the skin of an octopus to change colour through tiny variations in temperature.

According to professor John Rogers from the University of Illinois’s Materials Science and Engineering department, the new material could be used to produce colour-changing walls or surfaces which adapt according to their preferred use.

The project forms part of ongoing studies into biological engineering, which draws researchers from the fields of biology, computing and electrical engineering.

The researchers took inspiration from the three-layered skin found in the cephalopods family of fish which include octopus, cuttlefish and squid.

In the new material, the bottom layer contains a grid of 1mm x 1mm photosensors which detect light pattern changes and transmit that pattern to actuators in the layer above.

Though the technology is still in its infancy, the breakthrough is the first step in producing a dynamic material which can vary through a number of commands. The full findings have been published in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS).

Speaking to the BBC, Rogers - who has consulted the university’s own architecture department about the uses of the material - said: ‘Our goal as researchers is not to develop a colour-changing wallpaper. That’s a vision that somebody had, for an application - and indeed, it’s kind of cool. But our emphasis is more on the basics, around biologically-inspired engineering.’

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