MIT Creates Light-Sensitive ‘Reprogrammable’ Ink



You probably had to agonize over colors the last time you bought a car, a pair of shoes, or anything else where color matters. What if you didn’t have to pick a single color, though? Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a new color-changing ink that you can “reprogram” with light to produce different colors and patterns. Best of all, you can change the colors as many times as you want. 

MIT calls this “PhotoChromeleon” ink, and it’s a mix of multiple polychromatic dyes that can be spray-painted on almost any object. The team started by mixing standard automotive lacquer with cyan, yellow, and magenta polychromatic dyes. Each individual dye changes color when exposed to UV light. 

When you mix all three dyes together, you have a paint that can produce a wide range of colors. By understanding how each dye reacts to light, the researchers are able to precisely control each color channel. It’s similar to the way a modern inkjet printer uses individual cartridges of cyan, magenta, and yellow ink to create almost any shade you want. 

The team tested the programmable ink on various objects like a show, a phone case, and a (quite fittingly) a toy chameleon. The video below demonstrates how the clear ink becomes DLP projector shines high-intensity light onto the object’s surface as it spins on a turntable. However, it does take a few hours to create a pattern on small objects in the lab. The result is a colorized layer that looks like it was painted on. It was in a sense, but you can change the paint job whenever you want. 

This system is an evolution of ColorMod, a previous MIT experiment that used a 3D printer to create objects that could change color. In that case, the printer had to create each “pixel,” so the resulting patterns weren’t very clear. PhotoChromeleon produces crisp images, and you can quickly “reset” the ink with an ultraviolet light. 

MIT believes PhotoChromeleon technology could eventually make manufacturing more efficient and reduce waste. Imagine that you didn’t need to get two different pairs of shoes in different colors. You could just reset the color and change it to something else whenever you want. Bored with your phone case? Don’t buy a new one, just change the pattern with light. MIT is already working with Ford to advance the PhotoChromeleon project, which also supported the development of ColorMod.

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NASA Tests Space Concrete for Future Mars Habitats


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NASA is looking toward a future when humans could visit Mars for an extended period, and Elon Musk is promising to send people there in the next decade. Whenever humans do set foot on Mars, they’re going to need someplace to hang their hat (or spacesuit helmet). Concrete could potentially allow explorers to build structures quickly and easily, assuming it sets correctly without Earth gravity. NASA has conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to assess the strength of concrete mixed in space. 

Scientists believe concrete could be an ideal material for building on other worlds because it’s durable, offers protection from radiation, and it may be possible to make it using materials present on the moon and Mars. Being able to manufacture building materials at your destination (known as in-situ resources) makes missions cheaper and easier to design because you don’t have to launch as much mass from Earth. 

However, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the molecular structure of concrete here on Earth. Concrete is a mixture of sand and gravel with lime or silicate (cement powder). As the cement dissolves in water, it forms crystal complexes that link together the aggregate to make a solid structure. The process of mixing and building with concrete is well established on Earth, but we don’t know how microgravity could affect it. Do we need to modify the ratios? Add additional materials? That’s what the ISS experiment aims to find out. 

ISS concrete above and Earth concrete below.

The experiment, known as Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), is the first time concrete has been mixed outside of Earth’s gravity. Astronauts aboard the ISS mixed tricalcium silicate and water in varying amounts to create a concrete paste. The astronauts added alcohol to some of the packets to stop the hydration process at set intervals as well. A separate experiment used a centrifuge simulated lunar and Martian gravity on the samples as they mixed. 

The experiment confirms that concrete can harden in microgravity, which is a good thing. That means we can build structures with concrete outside of Earth’s gravity. The primary difference is an increase in pores compared with concrete mixed on Earth, and that could reduce the material’s strength. However, lower gravity on the moon or Mars would also put it under less strain. It may be possible to develop different binders that improve the strength of lunar or Martian concrete, and that may even lead to better concrete here on Earth.

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