Engineers at the University of California, Irvine, (UCI) have invented an adaptive composite material inspired by cephalopod skin that could one day be used for insulating beverage cups, to-go restaurant containers, shipping containers and parcel boxes.

By mimicking how squid alter their chromatophore size to camouflage their bodies, the researchers were able to develop an infrared-reflecting metallized polymer film capable of tunable thermoregulation.

According to Alon Gorodetsky, UCI associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, the large-area composite material regulates heat via reconfigurable metal structures that separate and then come back together amid different levels of strain.

"The metal islands in our composite material are next to one another when the material is relaxed and become separated when the material is stretched, allowing for control of the reflection and transmission of infrared light or heat dissipation," said Gorodetsky. "The mechanism is analogous to chromatophore expansion and contraction in a squid's skin, which alters the reflection and transmission of visible light."

To develop the film, the team deposited a copper film onto a reusable substrate — like aluminum foil — and sprayed several polymer layers onto the copper film.

To determine the film’s effectiveness, the team performed coffee cup tests in a UCI lab, demonstrating that they could control the cooling of the coffee, reportedly achieving a 20-fold modulation of infrared radiation transmittance and a 30-fold regulation of thermal fluxes under standard test conditions, according to the researchers.

The research appears in the article, Scalable manufacturing of sustainable packaging materials with tunable thermoregulability, which is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

For more information, watch the accompanying video that appears courtesy of UCI.

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