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Thermal bimetals help buildings shelter themselves from the sun

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Chinese building with thermal biometals
Chinese building with thermal biometals

Architecture professor Doris Kim Sung has given an excellent TED talk on her work with thermal bimetals, showing how the so-called 'smart materials' can be used to create self-managing systems for buildings. One important use is allowing buildings to react to sunlight, changing their configurations at different times of the day to prevent overheating. The key to this behavior is a curling process created by combining two different metals in one sheet — when heated, the materials expand at different rates, one overtaking the other.

Sung has taken inspiration from grasshoppers

When individual panels are combined and arranged, this simple movement can be used to develop complex systems, but creating shade isn't their only use. Spurred by her undergraduate education in biology, Sung has taken inspiration from the respiratory systems of grasshoppers to create buildings which use thermal bimetals to 'breathe' independently, opening and closing ventilation ducts depending on the time of day and the position of the sun. As she points out at the end of her talk, these systems require no human intervention — even in the case of a power outage, they continue to work "tirelessly, efficiently, and endlessly."