Engineers Use 19th-Century Holographic Technique to Make Cool Color-Shifting Material

A group of MIT engineers created color-shifting materials using holographic film, elastic, and a desktop projector. It also takes inspiration from the iridescent colors of butterflies and birds. The simple but elegant design has medical applications but also just looks really cool.

The technique utilizes the same holographic materials used in currency. When placed on a reflective surface and exposed to light from a desktop projector, nanostructures form. These reflect light to produce a certain color. When put on elastic and stretched, the nanostructures change and thus so does the color. The video below includes examples of color-shifting designs including a penny, fingerprints, and the school’s mascot Tim the beaver. 

MIT News reports that the technology could apply to compression bandages. You and your doctor would know if it was wrapped tight enough based on the color. People could also pass secret messages that only show under certain conditions. The peer-reviewed journal Nature Materials published the study.

The work updates a technique that won the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physics. Gabriel Lippmann utilized nanostructures to make color photographs back in 1886. The process took days for Lippmann but the MIT team can now accomplish it in a matter of minutes. A chance visit to the MIT Museum’s exhibit on holography gave graduate student Benjamin Miller the inspiration needed to make the breakthrough.

Two hands pulling an elastic material with a holographic image of a vase of flowers, some are orange, green, or blue depending on the strain
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Thanks to researching this new invention, I now understand how holographic and iridescent materials work for the first time. My favorite use is replacing circus animals with holograms to save them from a captive lifestyle. I also learned that nanostructures can be added to many different materials. Some that are good enough to eat, like holographic chocolates. Science you can eat? Yes, please!

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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