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Pine cone facade: intelligent technologies inspired by nature

Pine cone facade: intelligent technologies inspired by nature


We always try to invent something new. Both intricate and technology-driven. Sometimes, however, all you need to do is to take a closer look at nature. Did you know that the outer shell of a pine cone closes when it gets wet and opens when it is dry and sunny? This was something that intrigued Chao Chen, a Chinese student at the Royal College of Art. And he came up with the perfect solution for street summer structures… Why not create a material that opens up in sunny weather and closes when it rains?


Dry condition


Chen has developed a prototype three-layered material, which changes shape depending on the weather. The shell of the cone has two layers. After absorbing moisture, the outer shell forms a protective shield for the inner seed layer. Chen's material has three layers: fabric, thin film and veneer. When it gets wet, the veneer fibres expand, elongating and curving all the layers. And this is how the protective layer is formed – a layer that moisture cannot penetrated. 


Reacting as it becomes wet


Chen has come up with various options for using the innovative material. The first and most obvious one involves  stacking the “tiles” from the new material  on the roofs of temporary structures. The space under such an innovative hangar on a sunny day will open, but remain a little in the shade thanks to the vertical configuration of the tiles. If it rains, it will be reliably protected as the configuration changes when the tiles become moist.



The second idea is more aesthetic than functional. The shape-shifting material could be used as the  decorative coating of facades. On a sunny day the outer wall of a building will look conventional. On a rainy day, however, it will acquire a picturesque mosaic feel. 


Roofing tiles open in dry conditions


Roofing tiles closed in wet conditions


The third idea offers a handy solution for owners of house plants. The material can act as a water detector. If you paint one side of the material, for example, light blue (excess water), and the other — red (moisture stress), then you will be able to tell when it is time to irrigate or water the plant. 


When the soil is dry the stick is in an upright position and the red is a warning that it needs to be watered. The soil now has enough water and the stick lowers itself and shows the blue side as being ok


It is clear that Chen’s idea is very promising. However, each prototype needs further development. It would be great if scientists could come up with a solution to transform the “natural” prototype into a more  sustainable and durable product.



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