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What if your house's windows could automatically reduce the amount of hot sunlight passing through them, or your car's windshield could cause rain droplets to bead off to its edges? These things and more could soon be possible, thanks to a new animal hair-inspired material developed at MIT.
The material consists of a base layer of transparent flexible silicone, studded with a dense array of tiny nickel microhairs (or "micropillars"). At around 70 microns in height and 25 microns in width, each one is approximately a quarter the diameter of a human hair.
When an external magnetic field is applied at one side of the array, all of the hairs simultaneously bend towards it. The degree to which they bend can be controlled by varying the intensity of the field.
Firstly, this response can be used to alter how much light passes through the material. While the microhair array is pretty much clear when viewed top-down while the hairs are standing straight up, its opacity increases as the hairs bend over – they're essentially working like the slats in a set of window blinds.