SUMMARY: One of the features of all of Fuller’s designs and structures is the reliance on creating tensegrity structures using a combination of compression and tension elements. The tensional elements are typically flexible and there are many ways in which the forces and the lengths of these elements can be dynamically shifted. However, the compression bearing elements are difficult to dynamically change. Moreover, they must be structurally stiff; they typically are heavier and larger than the tensional elements. Inspired by the dynamic structure of biological cells, we propose a new form of structure that combines the tensional elements of surfaces and flexible tensional fibers to completely eliminate the need for any rigid compression elements. This approach generates structures that can be morphed in arbitrary fashion while maintaining structural strength at all times, whether used for a ship’s hull, an aircraft wing, a car’s aerodynamic shape, a bed, a chair, or energy harvesting systems using wind, water, or the sun.
PROBLEM SPACE: The elimination of rigid compression elements in the structure came about from considering the relationship of tensegrity within biological cell structure. Work by Gimzewski on cell mechanics and the action of drugs on cells was occurring when Chase was developing radical new morphing aircraft that could adapt to optimize aerodynamic efficiency for all flight conditions, significantly reducing fuel consumption. To become practical, the desired aircraft shape changes required new approaches that differed from traditional mechanical implementations where the structure, flexible skin, and actuation were all separate elements.
SOLUTION: Proof of concept of this holistic form of morphing has been experimentally realized in a laboratory. Dynamic morphing of a sphere to a cube without volume change and concave reverse morphing of an S-shape curve surface have been achieved. Furthermore, the technology for molding and bonding tensional elements to the skin has been tested.
Vesna's artwork, informed by Fuller’s research, inspired the team to meet and discuss new implementations for morphing while maintaining strength and rigidity of a three dimensional structure. These new types of structures are “rigidly flexible”, maintaining strength and pliability at the same time, quite unlike any other existing material or structural system. A simple trimtab, reconsidering the implementation of compression elements in tensegrity structures, has enabled this redefining new types of structures that have the potential to impact design solutions across every facet of life.
In examining Fuller’s works, we paid particular attention to where he considers the need to have compression elements. He starts with an analogy of a balloon--gas pressure creates a compression force against the wall of the elastomeric skin. Fuller then considers the nanostructure of the polymer molecules, which, in response to the pressure, are stretched in tension. Hence the balloon is a structure that has a type of tensegrity, but the shape and the elasticity of the skin dictate the form. It is also a structure that is easily deformed unless the skin is thick and the internal pressure is high. Fuller’s genius was to replace the internal pressure by compression elements, and in the process to use discrete tension elements connected to these compression elements. In our discussions we realized that a biological cell has a similar, yet fundamentally different type of structure. Although a cell does have an internal pressure, it is not a balloon filled with liquid and it can morph in shape, form, and rigidity. The cell contains filamentary structures (actin) that forms both the cell membrane and elements that attach the membrane to the nucleus. If we consider, as an inspirational analogy, a balloon with many filaments connected to a central core, then tension will be taken up not only by the skin but also by the fibers. The fibers themselves can be arranged in any pattern of lengths and patterns. The compressive strength results from the osmotic pressure.
Such a structure could create a square strong rigid balloon if the pattern of filaments was arranged with the correct lengths to a central point. Indeed, if we dynamically change the lengths of the filaments, the structure will change form. Optimum selection of filament density, skin mechanics, and the balance of internal pressure and length and elasticity of the filaments enables objects that can radically change volume and or shape at high speed in amazing, nearly arbitrary ways. Varying design solutions including rigid open structures can be realized by creating the biological analogy of an extra-cellular matrix connecting many of the elements. These elements or whole structures may be filled with different media such as gases for lightweight structures, fuels or inert gas mixtures for transportation systems, or pure liquid for ships that have morphable hulls. Although this radical new trimtab extension of Fuller’s original concept will enable new dynamic shape changing design solutions, it is itself just a trimtab that will spur on total reconsideration of our current, primarily static design solutions, resulting in holistic dynamic structures that sense and respond to the environment.
The first stage of this project is to bring to realization a Bio-Inspired Morphing Structure that captures the imagination of everyone who sees it. We propose to use the prize to create a number of different human-sized morphing sculptures and display them in galleries. The objects will perform a choreography of shape shifting, and participants will be encouraged to touch and feel the sculptures which will be solid at all times yet change in form. Furthermore we will surprise and intrigue the participants by shape shifting in response to their touch. This artwork will be dedicated to Fuller, representing the missing link in what Fuller wanted to achieve in the field of tensegrity. We plan to morph from a representation of coal to a diamond to a buckminsterfullerene shape. This artistic representation of three carbon molecules shape shifting is a symbolic introduction to the science that is inspired by Fuller’s observations of natural systems.
The prize and the impact of the shape-shifting sculpture will be a trimtab to create the interest and publicity needed to garner a high level of consideration from venture capitalists, which backed up by sound business and development plans, will enable the securing of funding for commercial product development. The initial product will be a morphing bed that provides the constant motion and stimulation needed to eliminate deadly bedsores, alleviating a cause of extensive human suffering that currently takes the life of many elderly and bed ridden people (US estimates at a cost of $2 Billion per year). Revenue from this first product will provide the capital needed to implement additional products such as: morphing cars whose streamlines are governed by driving conditions yet can become short structures for parking or act as active airbag fenders in collisions; airplanes and ships that morph for reduced fuel consumption; fully morphable buildings that optimize shape for energy considerations; furniture where the basic concept of individual elements is eliminated and replaced by BIMS structures that can be beds, chairs, tables, or art work as required; and energy harvesting devices that can be optimized in shape for all conditions.
The team of people on this project is ideally suited to take this work to the next stage of development, combining art, science, engineering, and entrepreneurship backgrounds. Their industry contacts will ensure the full development of the proposal if funded.
James K. Gimzewski is a Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, UCLA and was Research Scientist/Project Leader at IBM 1983-2001. He is the Director of the UCLA CNSI Nano & Pico Lab, the Scientific Director of the UCLA Art|Sci Center and a Principal Investigator with a lab at the Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics, Japan. He is a pioneer in nanotechnology and currently researches nanomechanics of human cancer cells and biologically inspired morphing. He is Carnegie Centenary Professor of the Universities of Scotland for 2009. He has published over 193 papers in international journals and given over 373 invited talks. Gimzewski is actively involved in the merging of art and science and has with Vesna created many Art|Sci exhibits internationally including ‘nano” at LACMA which combined architecture inspired by Fuller, interactive art and nanotechnology including projected buckyballs that morphed form by the actions of human shadows. He believes now is the time that Fuller's vision will transform the planet.
Charles Chase is founder and manager of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Revolutionary Technology Programs organization, a $15M per year enterprise responsible for the invention, development, and fielding of disruptive, game-changing technologies, ranging from new material systems to radical morphing aircraft. He is also the co-founder of CBH Technologies a small company dedicated to bringing commercial products to the marketplace, including a new type of highly efficient lighting.
Victoria Vesna did her PhD on Fuller’s work and is Director of the UCLA Art|Sci Center which is dedicated to bring the spirit of Fuller’s concepts of intellectual integrity to young people and to promulgate the creation of new science and technologies through radical shifts in perceptions and creativity. She is professor and former chair (2000-07) of Design|Media Arts at UCLA.