They’re known as smart materials, memory materials or shape memory alloys, but it all boils down to the same thing: materials that hold one shape, but then take on another at a certain temperature. Such substances have been around for decades, but now researchers at Canada’s University of Waterloo have taken them to a new level. Using a patent-pending process, they can embed multiple shape memories in one object – in other words, while memory materials can presently take on only two shapes, going from one to the other at one temperature, using the new process they could take on several shapes at several temperatures. The Multiple Memory Material Technology (MMMT) is said to work with virtually any memory material.

Not only can one object be made to take on different shapes, but it can even be divided up, so different parts of it take on different shapes at different temperatures. The transition zone between parts can be as small as a few microns. If a number of zones are located side-by-side, each with a sequential activating temperature, a smooth transition from one overall configuration to another can be achieved. The video below shows how the U Waterloo team applied this principle to a Transformer-like robot figure.

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"This ground-breaking technology makes smart materials even smarter," said Ibraheem Khan, a research engineer and graduate student working on the project. "In essence, a single material can be programmed to remember more shapes, making it smarter than previous technologies."

While there are any number of possible applications for MMMT, the researchers think it could be particularly applicable to medical devices such as stents, braces and hearing aids.