Skip navigation

Fold to Glitter – researchers discover novel optical sensing technology

15th April 2020

Scientists from Northumbria University have developed a new optical sensing technology which can light up areas of an object or material by creating microscopic wrinkles and folds within its surface.

Inspired by the way the outer layer of plants and animals can change colour in nature, the researchers have combined their expertise in physics and chemistry to create the new technology.

It could have a variety of practical applications, including within flexible wearable devices, electronics, and in 3D printing.

Their research paper setting out the findings, entitled A flexible topo-optical sensing technology with ultra-high contrast, has been published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications.

There are two specific elements to the research. The first was the creation of a thin ‘film’ or material which, when stimulated with a mechanical or electronic signal, results in microscopic folds being created on its surface, usually too small to be seen with the naked eye.

The second element was the creation of a chemical ‘paint’ which is applied to the material. When the folds are created in the surface, the resulting change in oxygen levels within the ‘paint’ leads to a chemical reaction. This creates a luminescent effect, making the surface of the material appear to ‘light up’ in the area where the fold has occurred (see diagram below).

The research was carried out by Dr Ben Bin Xu and Dr Yifan Li, from Northumbria University’s Department of Mechanical and Construction Engineering, and Dr Valery Kozhevnikov from Northumbria’s Department of Applied Sciences.

Dr Xu, an associate professor in Mechanical Engineering, led the project and said: “Wrinkles and folds are usually unwanted in engineering terms. Similarly, an oxygen quenching effect is not popular in fluorescence science.

“However, through micro-engineering, magic happened, and two unwanted phenomena were turned into a responsive and programmable ‘fold to glitter’ function.”

When subjected to mechanical stimuli, elastomeric materials such as that created by the Northumbria University researchers can undergo surface changes, such as wrinkles and cracks. This can be used to create switchable optical features and structural colour with dynamic luminescent patterns.

The phenomenon of elastic wrinkling and folding exists widely in nature and there has been much research by academics to understand the mathematical and physical science behind these changes and to explore how this could be used for innovative engineering solutions.

It is hoped this latest research will create new opportunities for designing the next generation flexible/wearable devices.

Professor John Woodward, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University’s Faculty of Engineering and Environment, said: “This is exciting new research with a number of emerging applications in flexible and wearable electronics and bio-devices.”

The work at Northumbria is part of a wider international collaborative research programme which also involved Prof Jie Kong from Northwestern Polytechnical University in China and Prof Ben Zhong Tang from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

It has been supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Royal Society Kan Tong Po International Fellowship 2019.

Professor Laurent Dala, head of Northumbria’s Department of Mechanical and Construction Engineering, added: “The outcomes show promise for future international collaboration between Northumbria University, Northwestern Polytechnic University, China and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and indicate the benefit of UKRI finding International research teams through fellowship grants.”

Find out more about Northumbria University’s Department of Mechanical and Construction Engineering and Engineering Materials and Mechanics Group (EM²G).

comments powered by Disqus

News and Features

This is the place to find all the latest news releases, feature articles, expert comment, and video and audio clips from Northumbria University

News and Features

This is the place to find all the latest news releases, feature articles, expert comment, and video and audio clips from Northumbria University

a sign in front of a crowd

Northumbria Open Days

Open Days are a great way for you to get a feel of the University, the city of Newcastle upon Tyne and the course(s) you are interested in.

Research at Northumbria

Research at Northumbria

Research is the life blood of a University and at Northumbria University we pride ourselves on research that makes a difference; research that has application and affects people's lives.

NU World

Explore NU World

Find out what life here is all about. From studying to socialising, term time to downtime, we’ve got it covered.

Latest News and Features

Military uniform
Nursing Degree Apprenticeship shortlisted for national award
Simulated learning using virtual reality recognised as example of best practice in nursing education
A three-year research project, led by academics from Northumbria University, aims to better connect the care system and expand it include creative health approaches such as art, crafts, sports, gardening or cooking to provide holistic support tailored to individuals. Getty Images.
Mothers working on the quilts at the community workshops hosted by the researchers.
Greenland Ice Sheet near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
Dark green fritiliary (Speyeria aglaja) is a species for which local extinctions have been linked to a warming climate. Photo by Alistair Auffret.
Bridget Phillipson stood with Vice-Chancellor Andy Long and Roberta Blackman-woods

Back to top