What if, as you stretched and moved, the colors of your clothing changed from green to blue or orange? This might be possible with a new fabric created by Ben Miller, a mechanical engineering graduate student who teamed with mechanical engineer Mathias Kolle and undergraduate student Helen Liu. Together they developed a new fabric that changes color when stretched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Chemicals found in dyes and pigments are usually responsible for the colors of clothing. These substances absorb some colors while reflecting others. This new material instead changes shades due to something known as structural color. It results from a configuration of surfaces inside a material that only reflects particular colors. For instance, a blue butterfly’s wings are covered in microscopic scale layers. These are arranged to reflect only blue light back. The scales let through all other colors. The amount of light that a viewer sees reflecting back depends on the angle at which they are looking at the wing or any other surface that is structurally colored. The colors frequently shine or shimmer as a result of this.
Many scientists have discovered techniques for producing materials with structural color. However, Miller’s team is the first to use inexpensive, widely accessible equipment to produce large, intricate, stretchy images. Furthermore, they didn’t even need to create anything entirely original! They employed a method from more than a century ago. When Miller started looking into the development of holography, he came across Gabriel Lippmann’s work. In 1891, a French scientist developed a technique for creating color photographs. His technique produced photos that were structurally colored. Later, Lippman’s process earned him the physics Nobel Prize. Miller laments that the procedure was “dangerous and messy” in addition to being slow. Thus, it was never popular. Other methods of producing color images were developed. Miller understood that all the issues with Lippman’s method could be resolved by using contemporary materials.
Many artists and fashion designers would love working with stretchy, color-changing fabrics. Structural color can create visual effects that aren’t possible with pigments, and people in the next future may use structural color more widely for clothing, cosmetics, or just about anything.Working with stretchy, color-changing fabrics would be a dream come true for many artists and fashion designers. People may use structural color more frequently for clothing, cosmetics, or practically anything in the future because it can produce visual effects that pigments cannot.