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Mechanical instabilities in structures, such as bending or wrinkling, should be avoided. However, if those instabilities are utilized correctly, they could help researchers design the next generation of shape-shifting structures.

Assistant Professor Kawai Kwok will investigate mechanical instabilities and how they can be used to create adaptive structures through the support of a $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award. NSF CAREER awards are given to early-career faculty with promising research and the potential to serve as role models for STEM-minded students.

“I’m incredibly excited and grateful for being selected,” Kwok said. “We’ve been working on the idea for the past year. This award will bring us to the next level of the research.”

Current adaptive structures, including deployable spacecraft, sensors and medical robots, can reconfigure their shape — but only to a certain degree. They typically have a limited range of motion, can only achieve certain shapes, or can’t easily shift back to their original state. But if a structure’s mechanical instabilities are exploited, it could result in a more malleable final product.

“Shape reconfiguration induced by instabilities is repeatable, fast, extensive, triggered on-demand, and consumes minimal energy input,” Kwok said. “These remarkable characteristics present tremendous potential for a variety of adaptive structures and autonomous machines.”

Kwok and his team in the Structures and Materials Design Lab will provide theoretical models, experimental data, simulation tools and new design methods for the development of structures that can extensively vary in shape. His work could advance space exploration, targeted drug delivery and robotic systems.

In addition to the research, Kwok also plans to use the NSF CAREER Award to develop a self-contained course that actively engages students in coding, experimentation, and design.