Event Location
3540 Engineering

Plant nanobionic materials for thermally active, structural woods and soft, artificial skins

Dr. Chiara Daraio

Professor Mechanical Engineering & Applied Physics

             California Institute of Technology

Abstract: Bionic materials are a class of materials that aims to preserve, enhance, and exploit properties of living systems for engineering purposes. The fabrication of such materials, which bridge the living and inanimate world, has been a longstanding challenge for material scientists, chemists and mechanicians. Attempts have focused on reverse engineering biological structures, biomimicking, and bioinspiration. In most cases, however, creating synthetic materials that reproduce or surpass the performance of natural materials has been elusive. We fabricate synthetic materials that combine carbon nanoparticles in a matrix of plant cells. These materials have mechanical and structural properties resembling wood. Unlike wood, however, they are exquisitely thermally active: they are electrically conducting, and their conductivity changes with temperature, with sensitivity that is two orders of magnitude greater than other materials. In extensions of this work, we extract the active molecule responsible for the temperature sensitivity in plants, and create soft, transparent hydrogels. We use these gels to form ultra-sensitive, flexible membranes that can detect temperature changes from a distance. These new bionic hydrogels augment properties of synthetic skins for robotics and prosthesis, and can find applications in consumer electronics.

Bio: Professor Daraio received her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Universita’ Politecnica delle Marche, Italy (2001). She received her M.S. (2003) and Ph.D. degrees (2006) in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of California, San Diego. She joined the Aeronautics and Applied Physics departments of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in fall of 2006 and was promoted full professor in 2010. From January 2013 to August 2016, she joined the department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zürich, with a chair in Mechanics and Materials. She returned at Caltech in August 2016, as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics. She received a Presidential Early Career Award (PECASE) from the White House in 2012, was elected as a Sloan Research Fellow in 2011 and received an ONR Young Investigator Award in 2010. She is also a winner of the NSF CAREER award (2009), of the Richard Von Mises Prize (2008) and received the Hetenyi Award from the Society for Experimental Mechanics (2015). She was selected by Popular Science magazine among the “Brilliant 10” (2010). She serves as an Associate Editor for the journal Extreme Mechanics Letters. She published over 120 peer-reviewed papers, two book chapters and several patents. For a complete list of publication and research information: