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Engineering Materials that Move

Project Full Title:

Design of Soft Responsive Material Systems for Amplified Motion - For Hope College Students Only

Project Mentor(s):


Project Mentor(s) EMail:

Project Start Date:


Project End Date:


Project Description:

This interdisciplinary project will incorporate the disciplines of mechanical engineering, materials science, chemistry, and physics. However, the project is specifically housed within the Hope College Department of Engineering.

Responsive materials are materials that convert one form of energy into another. The Smith Lab studies liquid crystal elastomers, which are rubbery materials composed of interconnected liquid crystal molecules. These materials exhibit unique optical, thermal, and mechanical properties. For example, certain liquid crystal elastomers can reversibly change their length by over 300% when heated above a critical temperature. Some of these elastomers also have mechanical properties similar to skeletal muscle. Potential applications for these materials include soft robotics, micro valves and pumps, miniaturized locomotion, energy harvesting, flexible electronics for responsive medical devices, and as a design template for architectured materials

The research in the Smith Lab is divided into two main projects:

The goal of the first project is to study the mechanical response of liquid crystal elastomer structures. Student researchers will fabricate elastomer samples and characterize them using various techniques such as tension testing and dynamic mechanical analysis. This project will require students to design and perform experiments on structures that can undergo rapid shape change driven by light or heat stimuli (like the rapid snap of the venus fly trap). Some students may have the opportunity to develop and run finite element analysis simulations.

The goal of the second project is to explore techniques for creating aligned liquid crystal elastomers. The function of these materials depends on the alignment of their liquid crystal constituents. Techniques for producing various alignments in these materials have been developed over the last several decades, but challenges still remain. Students working on this project should have an interest in chemistry, chemical engineering, or materials science. Students will synthesize small molecules and characterize them using NMR, FTIR spectroscopy, gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy, etc. The project will also involve polymer synthesis and characterization.

There is substantial overlap between these two projects and students will have the opportunity to develop the ability to work on interdisciplinary teams and will be able to learn about both topics.

Current openings are for Hope College students only. For more information about this project or the specific material systems, please contact the project mentor and/or see the references below.


M.L. Smith, J. Gao, A.A. Skandani, et al. Tuned photomechanical switching of laterally constrained arches, Smart Materials and Structures Vol. 28, 075009, 2019

M. Ravi Shankar, M. L. Smith, et al. Contactless, photoinitiated snap-through in azobenzene-functionalized polymers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 110, pgs. 18792-18797, 2013.

C.M. Yackaki, C. M., M. Saed, D. P. Nair, et al. Tailorable and programmable liquid-crystalline elastomers using a two-stage thiol-acrylate reaction, RSC Advances Vol. 5, 18997-19001, 2015.

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