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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Making Smarter Stuff

By May 3, 2011

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We are in an age where the things we create are being enhanced in ways that could only be described as magical in previous generations. Some great examples of this were in the recent "Making Stuff" series from PBS (now available on both DVD & Blu-ray disk, or for free online streaming at their official website).

I finally got around to watching the "Making Stuff Smarter" episode and was blown away by some of the stuff they have going on.

One example of a smart material from the show is a non-Newtonian fluid that responds to a magnetic field. These materials, called magnetorheological fluids, can increase their viscosity when a magnetic field is present. By using small electromagnets, engineers are able to design systems that can control and modify the fluid resistance in response to the situation. The example from the show was a set of shock absorbers on a military Hummer, which significantly dampened the bumps when moving over an uneven road!

One of the best examples of a non-Newtonian fluid is called Oobleck, which can easily be created at home from cornstarch and other materials.  Oobleck was featured as the first installment in Scientific American's Bring Science Home initiative.

In the "Making Stuff Smarter" episode, Oobleck also made an appearance, but in quantities far beyond anything I've ever been able to pull off. In fact, they needed a cement mixing truck to generate the quantity of Oobleck necessary for their demonstration, in which people were able to walk on Oobleck. The force of their steps caused the Oobleck to turn solid under their foot long enough for them to run across the pool!

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