Scientists Have Created Programmable Shape-Shifting Liquid Metal

Researchers at the University of Sussex and Swansea University have applied electrical charges to manipulate liquid metal into 2D shapes such as letters and a heart. The team says the findings represent an “extremely promising” new class of materials that can be programmed to seamlessly change shape. This open up new possibilities in ‘soft robotics’ and shape-changing displays, the researcher say.

While the invention might bring to mind the film Terminator 2, in which the villain morphs out of a pool of liquid metal, the creation of 3D shapes is still some way off. More immediate applications could include reprogrammable circuit boards and conductive ink.

Yutaka Tokuda, the Research Associate working on this project at the University of Sussex, says:
“This is a new class of programmable materials in a liquid state which can dynamically transform from a simple droplet shape to many other complex geometry in a controllable manner. While this work is in its early stages, the compelling evidence of detailed 2D control of liquid metals excites us to explore more potential applications in computer graphics, smart electronics, soft robotics and flexible displays.”

The electric fields used to shape the liquid are created by a computer, meaning that the position and shape of the liquid metal can be programmed and controlled dynamically.

Professor Sriram Subramanian, head of the INTERACT Lab at the University of Sussex, said:
“Liquid metals are an extremely promising class of materials for deformable applications; their unique properties include voltage-controlled surface tension, high liquid-state conductivity and liquid-solid phase transition at room temperature. One of the long-term visions of us and many other researchers is to change the physical shape, appearance and functionality of any object through digital control to create intelligent, dexterous and useful objects that exceed the functionality of any current display or robot.”

The research is being has been presented at the ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces 2017 conference in Brighton. This is a joint project between Sussex and Swansea funded by EPSRC on “Breaking the Glass: Multimodal, Malleable Interactive Mobile surfaces for Hands-In Interactions”.


  1. This process seems to make possible the answers to a riddle I have been considering. If earthlings make contact with exo-earth life, who know nothing of our means of communication and we know nothing of theirs, what processes can we learn to use to communicate with the exo-earth life forms. Perhaps we can take this process and teach it to echo their processes.

    1. The answer is mathematics, in short: ones and zeros. Any advance civilization would have no problem understanding such a language. The other answer is digital or analog representations, like a photograph of ourselves.

    2. Everyone's answer is mathematics. The problem is that we don't speak that language as fluently as we think we do. An advanced civilization's mathematics would be profound compared to our own understanding, and it would be very likely that even if we did manage to eek out a question in mathematics, we would not be able to understand the answer. Problem solving, and communications require unorthodox thinking and creative problem solving techniques which escape those who are mathematically inclined. 1001101001010010110101000101010010. See what I mean?

    3. Your simple binary string as a standalone statement does not have the capability of representing what you could communicate in words, however, that is not a proof for it being useless, even in the average person's hands. It takes having a common translational tool (like a cellphone or computer) available to the majority of the populace to satisfy the definition that's an analog to how the original poster thinks this liquid metal dynamorphic process can be used when coupled with a potent artificial general intelligence of capable potency.

    4. The reason everyone's answer is mathematics is that we _do_ speak that language fluently, and so will any other advanced civilisation.

      There are mathematical and physical properties which are basic properties of the universe, and we can and would use them to establish a baseline of communication.

      A more advanced civilisation might know more maths that we didn't. But mathematical truths are eternal; they would recognise _our_ attempts at communication as such.

      And any maths we didn't understand in the reply would BE a means of communication; when you know a mathematical fact you can prove it and understand it's relation to the facts around it, unlike ordinary language. If they understand the maths themselves, they can explain it to us. Using the maths we already know. That's the beauty of maths; you can start at the simplest concepts and work up to _everything_.

      As for your claim that "unorthodox thinking and creative problem solving techniques... escape those who are mathematically inclined"... that's just an extremely silly comment. You've obviously never had contact with serious pure maths research, which requires NOTHING BUT unorthodox thinking and creative problem solving techniques.

      When the great David Hilbert was told one of his students had dropped out of mathematics to study poetry, he is reported to have said: “Good. He did not have enough imagination to become a mathematician.”

  2. Your picture of a 3D shape is misleading. Shame on you pseudo-journalists and you call yourselves scientists.

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