Designer matter and metamaterials at Amsterdam Science Park

Researchers at Amsterdam Science Park are blurring the boundaries between material and machine. The field of designer matter and metamaterials involves creating entirely new materials. Substances that don’t yet exist, that can change shape and respond to the environment without external direction.


Designer matter and metamaterials at work

Designer matter studies the understanding and fabrication of functional materials. Such metamaterials are not found in nature – they are designed and created by scientists and engineers. They have properties that go beyond those of their individual constituents. Based on fundamental research into the physics of matter, the field has real-life applications in engineering, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, robotics, auto design, the creation of prosthetics and more. Partners involved with designer matter research at Amsterdam Science Park include Unilever, the European Space Agency and the Netherlands Aerospace Center.

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Areas of specialisation

Amsterdam Science Park is home to world-leading centres of expertise in designer matter and metamaterials: AMOLF and the Soft Matter Group at the University of Amsterdam (UvA).

The UvA’s Soft Matter Group includes a range of areas of specialisation:

AMOLF’s Designer Matter initiative has combined experimental research with new theoretical approaches to advance the study of functional materials. Research is divided into broad thematic groupings, which include sustainable energy materials, autonomous materials and information in materials:

  • The Mechanical Metamaterials group works on the development of seemingly simple systems and materials from which complex behaviour emerges.
  • Marc Serra-Garcia, leader of the Hypersmart Matter group, has received a €1.68 million grant from the European Research Council to study how structured elastic materials can process information. The work has great potential for low-energy computing technology.
  • The Self-Organizing Matter group researches physical and chemical processes at the nano level that enable complex phenomena. This has implications for making ‘functional molecules’ for use in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors.
  • The Soft Robotic Matter group researches and develops materials that can autonomously adapt to complex and changing environments.
  • The Photonic Materials group studies materials that respond to light in certain ways, with a focus on photovoltaics and development of next-generation solar cells.

Soft Matter: blurring the boundaries between materials and machines

Corentin Coulais of UvA’s Soft Matter group is working on the development of materials that change shape in a way that can be controlled or that shape-change by themselves. His aim, he says, “is to blur the boundaries between materials and machines.” The materials can be used for shock absorption – not only for machines but also for prosthetics for humans: “Think about how we absorb an impact, to adjust the pressure in your foot, for instance. We could even make some kind of exoskeleton that helps someone bend their arm in one specific way, but not in another.”

Central to Coulais’ work is controlling fracture and the energy that is dissipated when an object breaks. Perhaps unexpectedly, this work has applications in the world of food. “We made structures out of chocolate,” he explains, “and they don’t change shape, they just break. Through geometry, you can control the way they break, and that affects what you feel in your mouth. We were working on that with Unilever.”

The research also has potentially wide-ranging applications in engineering, and some of the concepts are already being patented with Tata Steel. Coulais is now building a consortium to develop further applications: “The work is interesting for protective equipment and planes. Another partner is the Dutch Aerospace institute, who are trying to make drones that fly without CO2-emissions. Having these dissipative structures will make them safer when they land. There’s a lot you can do with the applicative science. Some of these inventions might get into cars in ten years’ time.”

Soft robotics: designing intelligent systems

Designing and manufacturing solid matter that can adapt to – and even harness – variations in its environment without any external intervention is the focus of AMOLF’s Soft Robotic Matter group. Taking place at the crossroads of mechanical metamaterials and soft robotics, the group’s researchers first develop a deeper understanding of the geometry and structure of materials, then create new materials that behave in a certain way. Those materials can then be used to build autonomous robotic structures.

Applications range from automated tomato-picking systems to an artificial heart, and from shock absorbers to solar panels for space satellites. We spoke to group leader Bas Overvelde at his office in Amsterdam Science Park. “The intelligence is in the system itself,” he said. Read the full interview to find out more about this pioneering innovation.

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