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Biologists and material scientists will be glad to hear that the natural world has emerged as a major inspiration for new materials and technology. American engineers have developed a flexible material that changes colour to match its surroundings.

Professor John Rogers and his team from the University of Illinois based their design on the camouflage abilities of cephalopods: octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. The three-layer design seen in the skin of these animals was adapted for the engineered system – where the top layer contains the colours, the middle layer drives colour changes, and the lower senses the background patterns to be copied. In the new material, the bottom layer contains a grid of photosensors which detect changes in light and transmit the pattern to ‘actuators’ in the layer above. Although the material so far only responds in black and white, researchers hope that the principles of the design can be developed further and be applied to a variety of military and commercial uses.

The potential military uses of camouflage are such that the project was initially funded by the US Navy. Artists and designers have also been drawn towards the material’s potential – with the possibility of colour-changing fabrics for high-end fashion which could respond to ambient lighting, or even dynamic colour-changing walls and other interior surfaces. While Rogers remained jovial about the myriad of commercial uses for his engineering feat, he stressed that, ‘’”Our goal as researchers is not to develop a colour-changing wallpaper.

That’s a vision that somebody had, for an application – and indeed, it’s kind of cool. But our emphasis is more on the basics, around biologically inspired engineering.” For those looking to be well-armed with case studies before their material science interviews, here’s a link to Professor Rogers’ work in the journal PNAS.

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