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Brief Published: 7 Jul 2016

Stretchy Structural Colour

Polymer Opals change colour when stretched

Following years of development, researchers from the University of Cambridge have reached the stage where stretchy 'polymer opals' can be produced on an industrial scale.

Iridescent surfaces found in nature – such as on butterfly wings, beetle shells and opals – are a natural phenomenon that scientists have long tried to recreate, using thin-film technologies and nano-flakes suspended in acrylic, glass and coatings. As technology has advanced, it has become possible to look at naturally occurring nano-structures in closer detail, and synthetic iridescent surfaces have been developed that not only stretch, but also change colour as they stretch.

As reported in ScienceDaily, "the researchers are now able to produce hundreds of metres of these materials, known as 'polymer opals', on a roll-to-roll process" – bringing down the cost, and opening up the potential for new applications.

The colour-changing material could benefit the medical sector – with tension or overstretching being visually indicated – as well as having implications for security, wearables, footwear and accessories. Cambridge Enterprise (the commercial arm of the University of Cambridge) has already had enquiries from hundreds of companies, and it has set up tech start-up Phomera Technologies to focus on manufacturing the material in larger quantities.

As this 'structural colour' does not rely on the dyes, pigments, chemicals and water that are ordinarily used to colour materials, this will be an interesting technology to consider in terms of environmental responsibility.

See our report Magical for more iridescent colour inspiration.