Where nature always responds to changes, materials are often not flexible. That is why there is now Re: flex, a material that is deformable and changes when exposed to heat.

  • What: Re: flex
  • Where: Veem (Floor 3, Strijp-S), Torenallee 86-02, 5617 BD Eindhoven
  • When: 19 - 27 October

During their Master's degree in Innovation Design Engineering in London, Benton Ching (philosopher), Pierre Azalbert (electrical engineer), James Fraser (construction engineer) and Karlijn Sibbel (product designer) met.

Together they went to work on one of the projects in the final year of the study. "We were all inspired by nature, the way it always adapts to changing circumstances such as the weather," says Sibbel.

She takes a pine cone as an example. "It reacts automatically when it gets wet, then the scales close to protect the seeds. When the sun breaks through, it opens again automatically." That reaction is in the material. "We found that fascinating."

Almost everything that people build is static, it cannot respond to circumstances. "That is why we went looking for ways in which we could create a material that can respond, that has adaptability." She brought that search to scientific literature from materials science about smart materials, the so-called 'active matter'.

Smart materials

"Active matter is smart material that responds to external stimuli such as heat, light or electricity. We decided to focus on so-called 'memory material', which reacts to heat. But once with the specialists, we understood that these materials are very expensive. We could not purchase this. That was a turning point in our process. "

In the absence of options, the four wondered: can we imitate this effect? "We went into scientific publications to see how we could recreate this effect." This resulted in an experimental process in which everything was tried. "We had to read in, experiment ourselves. We had to improvise quite a bit, but that makes it interesting and fun."

Memory materials are normally difficult to get and are made in a complex way, Sibbel explains. "We have made a composite of a hard and an elastic material. By combining the two we got the same effect."

Hard core and elastic skin

The two materials are a combination of a hard core that forms the skeleton, and this is encased in an elastic skin. "The skeleton can change stiffness and therefore be hard and soft."

Re: flex is hard at room temperature, but softens when heated around 60 to 80 degrees. "It is then pliable to twist and twist in any shape. If you let it cool, it will remember that shape. The interesting thing is that if you heat it up again, without touching it, it will return to the original shape. So the material has shape memory. "

Re: flex after being twisted (photo: Karlijn Sibbel)

Once this was discovered, a sense of joy prevailed, Sibbel says. "If you work in a team, it's nice to share the moment you discover something. It was really a euphoric moment! Then you found something and then you started playing with it. That is a new process again."

The material can be fixed and used, for example, as reusable plaster in the event of a bone fracture. "The main difference is that you can reuse it, because it can be easily removed and cleaned."

Re: flex can also form a thermal drive, for example to drive a gear or to make furniture unfoldable. The material can also adjust. "This is interesting for ergonomic applications for a chair, for example."

One of the tests with the material Re: flex (photo: Karlijn Sibbel)

Extend lifetime

Sibbel thinks that in the future we will look at materials in a different way. "With Re: flex we can extend the lifespan of objects or products, or reuse them better. That makes it interesting."

Ultimately, more materials will be produced that are no longer static, and that can form or adapt as required, Sibbel thinks. "We have to look at how we handle materials and review the cycle of use. Especially with regard to the environment."