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Just over a year ago we held a conference on smart This article appeared in
materials at the University of Exeter. One of the speakers, Issue 35 of the SAS
Professor Chris Smith, gave a fascinating presentation on a newsletter in Summer
group of materials that he described as meta-materials. In 2010.
this article we shall explore this unusual group of materials
which have some unique and very interesting properties...
temperatures. What is a meta-material?
Meta-materials are a class of man-made materials that have
been specially designed to have properties that are not
available in nature.
In most materials the properties are largely a result of the
crystal structure and microstructure and by modifying these This engineered meta-material has
been designed to reverse the
the desired properties can be achieved. For example, the direction of visible and near
low temperature strength and toughness of a high strength infrared light. It could be used in
the development of imaging
low alloy steel can be controlled by the addition of elements devices with higher resolution and
such as titanium and niobium. These elements form tiny nanocircuits.
precipitates at high temperatures that control how the
microstructure develops during processing. The resulting
fine grain size produces a steel that has good strength and
good toughness at low
In meta-materials the properties are often controlled by This array has been engineered by
structure on a larger scale and the structure is artificially mounting an array of split-ring
engineered to contain small inhomogeneities which alter the copper resonators on interlocking
sheets of fibreglass circuit board.
properties on a macroscopic level. The array is 10x100x100mm in
size and consists of three 20x20
Auxetic materials are just one class of meta-materials; unit cells. It has been designed to
electromagnetic meta-materials are engineered to contain have a negative refractive index.
structural features which are smaller than the wavelength of
the electromagnetic radiation they are designed to interact
with. At present they have been successfully used with
microwave radiation with a wavelength of a few centimetres
and they have the potential to be used as beam steerers,
lenses and antenna radomes.
One feature of electromagnetic meta-materials that might
prove particularly useful is that they can be engineered to
have a negative refractive index. These are generally
complex composite materials in which the various
components are assembled in such a way to interact with the
incident radiation in the desired way. In the photograph
(right) copper split rings and wires have been mounted on a
fibreglass circuit board.
One of the most fascinating potential uses of meta-materials
is for the development of cloaking devices and the first
possible such device was demonstrated in 2006. The
invisibility cloak deflects microwaves so that they flow
around the hidden object with very little distortion, making it
appear as if there were nothing there at all. For the time
being cloaking devices which operate in the visible spectrum
are not available, so the Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak will Auxetic hexagon containing hinge-
have to remain a thing of science fiction for the foreseeable like features.
What are auxetic materials?
Auxetic materials are a class of meta-materials which exhibit
negative Poissons Ratio. They have been known for over a
hundred years but have only gained attention in recent
decades. They can be single molecules, but more often they
consist of an engineered material with a particular structure
on the macroscopic level. Auxetic materials can occur in
nature, but they are very rare. For example some rocks and
minerals demonstrate auxetic properties as does the skin on
a cows teats.
Auxetics are created by modifying the macrostructure of the
material so that it contains hinge-like features which change
shape when a force is applied. If a tensile force is applied
When a tensile force is applied to
the hinge-like structures extend, thus causing lateral an auxetic hexagon it experiences
expansion. If a compressive force is applied the hinge-like extension parallel to the applied
force, but also expands
structures fold even further causing lateral contraction. perpendicular to the force as the
hinge structure unfolds.
A common analogy used to describe the behaviour of auxetic
materials is to consider an elastic cord with an inelastic string
wrapped around it. When a tensile force is applied the
inelastic material straightens at the same time as the elastic
cord stretches, thus effectively increasing the volume of the
Auxetic materials are often based on foam structures and as
such they have a relatively low density. It is this open cell
structure which can be modified to give the desired
The unusual properties of auxetic materials mean that they
are relatively resistant to denting. When an auxetic is hit the
compression caused by the impact results in the material
compressing towards the point of the impact, thus becoming When a compressive force is
applied to an auxetic hexagon it
much denser and resisting the force. Auxetic materials are experiences a contraction parallel
also more resistant to fracture; they expand laterally as a to the applied force, but also
contracts perpendicular to the
force is applied and this closes up potential cracks in the force as the hinge structure folds.
material before they start to grow. The main drawback of
these materials is that they are often too porous, not dense
enough or not stiff enough for load bearing applications and
when these properties are adjusted the auxetic behaviour
tends to be reduced. Applications of these materials
therefore often rely on a compromise of properties.
How are auxetic materials made?
Auxetic materials can essentially be made in two different
ways. In the top-down approach everyday polymers are
manipulated to give the desired structure and properties. In
the bottom-up approach the material is built up from scratch,
Schematic diagram of nodule and
molecule by molecule, allowing them to be engineered on a fibril auxetic material (top) showing
very small scale. In both cases the objective is to create a idealised structure (bottom).
repeating pattern of building blocks or cells which contain the
necessary hinge-like features.
The first synthesised polymer-based auxetic material was
created in 1987 using the top-down approach. Rod Lakes of
the University of Iowa started out with an ordinary
polyurethane foam which consisted of a honeycomb of
hexagonal cells. When he applied heat and pressure to this
cell structure it caused the side walls of the cells to buckle
resulting in the auxetic hexagon shown earlier.
The following year Ken Evans from the University of Exeter
created another auxetic structure in PTFE. This structure
consisted of oval nodules connected at their tips by long
strands or fibrils. Under normal circumstances the nodules
overlap with the fibrils wound round them. When the material Schematic diagram showing how
is stretched in the direction of the fibrils they pull taut and this lateral expansion occurs under
tension in a nodule and fibril
causes the nodules to rotate and snap into a rigid grid-like auxetic material.
arrangement (see right). Liquid crystal materials can be
engineering to have auxetic properties by building up a
structure consisting of alternating rigid and flexible units
molecule by molecule.
Where are auxetic materials used?
There have been many suggested uses for auxetic materials,
but most of these have yet to come to fruition commercially.
These materials can be difficult to process on a large scale,
making industrial manufacture difficult. Some potential areas
for use are described below.
Biomedical applications
Many of the materials that are currently used in medical
applications can be processed to exhibit auxetic properties.
It has been suggested that auxetic materials could be used
to dilate blood vessels during heart surgery. A piece of
auxetic foam, possibly made from PTFE would be inserted
into the blood vessel and then tension applied to this to
cause lateral expansion and open out the vessel. Auxetics
could also be used in surgical implants and prosthesis and
for the anchors used to hold sutures, muscles and ligaments
in place.
Traditional filters can be incredibly difficult to clean, leading
to them being thrown away prematurely. A filter made from
an auxetic foam could be cleaned much more easily by
simply applying a tensile force to open up the pores. Once
clean the force can be removed and the filter refitted.
Auxetic fibres
This is one area which does show real potential for
exploitation. The key here is the development of a
continuous process for developing auxetic materials in the
form of fibres. The resulting fibres could be used in
monofilament or multifilament form and could be knitted or
woven together to make cloth. It has been suggested that
these fabrics could be used in crash helmets, body armour
and sports clothing where their dent and fracture resistance
would be exploited.
It may also be possible to spin an auxetic fibre with another
functional fibre and / or a more traditional textile to produce
yarn with a range of useful properties for technical
Auxetic fibre reinforced composites
There is no reason why woven fabric made from auxetic
fibres cannot be used to reinforce a polymer in the same way
that carbon or Kevlar cloth is used. However, the addition of
an auxetic material could dramatically improve the fracture
performance of the resulting composite. If the Poissons ratio
of the reinforcing fibres and matrix material are carefully
matched the possibility of delamination at the matrix-fibre
interface is reduced, thus making it more difficult for a crack
to propagate and failure to occur. As the matrix contracts
laterally when placed in tension, the auxetic fibre expands,
allowing the interface to be maintained.
Auxetic materials could also be added to metallic materials
such as steels to create composites with improved resistance
to cracking under shear strain (twisting).
Where can I find out more?
You might like to have a look at the following websites:'s_ratio

Poissons Ratio
Poissons Ratio, defined by Simon Denis Poisson a
French Mathematician in 1829, describes the behaviour of
materials when they are deformed.
When a tensile load is applied to a cube of material it will
tend to extend in the direction parallel to the load (axial
direction) and contract in the two directions transverse or
perpendicular to the load (see below).

When a compressive load is applied to a cube of material

it will tend to contract in the direction parallel to the load
(axial direction) and expand in the two directions
transverse or perpendicular to the load (see below).

The ratio of the shape change in the transverse and axial

directions is known as Poissons Ratio and for most
materials this value is between 0.0 and 0.5.
The Poisson Effect is caused by the stretching of bonds in
the material lattice in order to accommodate the applied
stress. When the bonds elongate along the stress
direction they shorten in the other directions.