A University of Washington research project has created a bone-shaped plastic tab that turns purple when stretched, allowing for a way to record the force on an object. Researchers say their work effectively merges custom chemistry and 3D printing.

Two doctoral students in chemistry created a polymer made up of many repeated units strung together and then fed the soft plastic in a chemistry lab’s commercial 3D printer.

One print head had polycaprolactone, similar to what is marketed as Flexible Filament. The other print head had a plastic that is 99.5% identical but which has traces of spiropyran, which changes color when stretched.

Researchers wanted to demonstrate that the functional chemistry could be incorporated readily into already printable materials. They found that designer chemistry can be rapidly incorporated into 3D printing.

The whole device took about 15 minutes to print, and materials cost less than $1. The research team also hopes to develop a sensor that records the speed of force or impact.

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