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Predator's camouflage creeps closer to reality with new color-changing smart gels

By Jeff Spry

Blending in with one's immediate environment like the active camouflage technology used by the alien hunter in Predator would certainly have alarming applications in the real world, making the procurement of a free windmill cookie from the bulk food bin at grocery stores nearly undetectable.

But clever scientists and engineers at Rutgers University are eager to replicate that amazing invisibility ability by inventing a new type of 3D-printed stretchable material with the power to change color on demand. While the potentials for such shifting smart gels are limitless, the immediate goal is targeting an advanced method of military camouflage.


Rutgers' team outlined their findings in a new paper just published in the online journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, explaining that the idea for these smart gels was inspired by the color-changing skin of sea creatures like cuttlefish, octopuses, and squids.

Used for camouflage and communication, the concealment is completed by the thousands of color-changing pigment cells embedded in their skin called chromatophores.

“Electronic displays are everywhere and despite remarkable advances, such as becoming thinner, larger and brighter, they’re based on rigid materials, limiting the shapes they can take and how they interface with 3D surfaces,” noted senior author Howon Lee, an assistant professor at Rutgers.

“Our research supports a new engineering approach featuring camouflage that can be added to soft materials and create flexible, colorful displays.” 


To conjure up this sci-fi magic, Rutgers engineers developed a 3D printable hydrogel that detects light and alters shape as a consequence.

Hydrogels are H20-infused polymers that retain their shape while staying in solid form and can be seen in the human body, Jell-O, contact lenses, and regenerative medicines. Instead of dissolving in the presence of water, there materials enter into a hybrid semi-solid state.

By inserting a light-sensing nanomaterial into the water-swollen hydrogel, scientists have effectively changed it into an “artificial muscle” that contracts in response to changes in light. This light-reacting smart gel combines with the 3D-printed flexible material to achieve its remarkable camouflaging properties. 

Currently, Lee and his research crew are aiming at improving the hue-shifting technology’s sensitivity, response time, scalability, packaging, durability, and ramping up the production process.