Vascular composites enable dynamic structural materials

July 26, 2011

Taking their cue from biological circulatory systems, University of Illinois researchers have developed vascularized structural composites, creating materials that are lightweight and strong with potential for self-healing, self-cooling, metamaterials and more.

"We can make a material now that's truly multifunctional by simply circulating fluids that do different things within the same material system," said Scott White, the Willet Professor of who led the group. "We have a vascularized structural material that can do almost anything."

are a combination of two or more materials that harness the properties of both. Composites are valued as structural materials because they can be lightweight and strong. Many composites are fiber-reinforced, made of a network of woven fibers embedded in – for example, graphite, fiberglass or Kevlar.

The Illinois team, part of the Autonomous Materials Systems Laboratory in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, developed a method of making fiber-reinforced composites with tiny channels for liquid or gas transport. The channels could wind through the material in one long line or branch out to form a network of capillaries, much like the vascular network in a tree.

"Trees are incredible , but they're dynamic too," said co-author Jeffrey Moore, the Murchison-Mallory professor of chemistry and a professor of materials science and engineering. "They can pump fluids, transfer mass and energy from the roots to the leaves. This is the first step to making synthetic materials that have that kind of functionality."

The key to the method, published in the journal Advanced Materials, is the use of sacrificial fibers. The team treated commercially available fibers so that they would degrade at high temperatures. The sacrificial fibers are no different from normal fibers during weaving and composite fabrication. But when the temperature is raised further, the treated fibers vaporize – leaving tiny channels in their place – without affecting the structural composite material itself.

"There have been vascular materials fabricated previously, including things that we've done, but this paper demonstrated that you can approach the manufacturing with a concept that is vastly superior in terms of scalability and commercial viability," White said.

In the paper, the researchers demonstrate four classes of application by circulating different fluids through a vascular composite: temperature regulation, chemistry, conductivity and electromagnetism. They regulate temperature by circulating coolant or a hot fluid. To demonstrate a chemical reaction, they injected chemicals into different vascular branches that merged, mixing the chemicals to produce a luminescent reaction. They made the structure electrically active by using conductive liquid, and changed its electromagnetic signature with ferrofluids – a key property for stealth applications.

Next, the researchers hope to develop interconnected networks with membranes between neighboring channels to control transport between channels. Such networks would enable many chemical and energy applications, such as self-healing polymers or fuel cells.

"This is not just another microfluidic device," said co-author Nancy Sottos, the Willett professor of science and engineering and a professor of aerospace engineering. "It's not just a widget on a chip. It's a structural material that's capable of many functions that mimic biological systems. That's a big jump."

Explore further: Physicists develop new technique to fathom 'smart' materials

More information: The paper, "Three-Dimensional Microvascular Fiber-Reinforced Composites," is available online at

Related Stories

Physicists develop new technique to fathom 'smart' materials

November 26, 2015

Physicists from the FOM Foundation and Leiden University have found a way to better understand the properties of manmade 'smart' materials. Their method reveals how stacked layers in such a material work together to bring ...

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...

Moonlighting molecules: Finding new uses for old enzymes

November 27, 2015

A collaboration between the University of Cambridge and MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca, has led researchers to identify a potentially significant new application for a well-known ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.