While squid are most well-known for being ink-producing sea creatures, a professor at the University of California, Irvine is crediting the animal for inspiring a breakthrough in food insulation technology.

Alon Gorodetsky, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and his team of researchers have helped design a flexible material by developing technology that mimics the characteristics of the squid’s skin. 

The process focuses on the expansion and contraction of chromatophores, which are pigment-containing cells that adjust body color based on the surrounding of the organism’s environment. In other words, the animal’s natural camouflage. 

Since 2018 Gorodetsky says he has been fascinated with the cephalopod species, based on their ability to change the color of their appearance to mimic the surrounding environment.

“The application was really motivated by thinking about that fundamental problem because food packaging is very wasteful,” Gorodetsky said. “And the number of packages everyone had delivered to their homes went up by more than an order of magnitude. Where is all that stuff going afterward? It will be in landfills for hundreds of years, basically.”

Researching the cephalopod’s ability to generate instantaneous natural camouflage has become the focus of Gorodetsky’s work over the last few years, and recently led him to create a new material that is being referred to as an infrared-reflecting polymer film.    

“Essentially a cephalopod could practically disappear, and be completely invisible, or look exactly like an algae-covered rock,” he said. “It was so amazing, I knew I had to work on some aspects of these animals.”

The reflective polymer uses flexible tiny metallic structures to initiate infrared reflection when stretched on a surface, like a coffee cup for example. In fact, coffee cups became a focal point during the testing of Gorodetsky’s latest development, in which the team reported that cooling of the cup could be controlled. 

“The metal islands in our composite material are next to one another when the material is relaxed and become separated when the material is stretched, allowing for control of the reflection and transmission of infrared light or heat dissipation,” Gorodetsky said. “The mechanism is analogous to chromatophore expansion and contraction in a squid’s skin, which alters the reflection and transmission of visible light.”

Specifically, Gorodetsky’s team was able to achieve “20-fold modulation of infrared radiation transmittance and 30-fold regulation of thermal influxes,” according to a release. 

“There is an enormous array of applications for this material,” said Gorodetsky. “Think of all the perishable goods that have been delivered to people’s homes during the pandemic. Any package that Amazon or another company sends that needs to be temperature-controlled can use a lining made from our squid-inspired adaptive composite material. Now that we can make large sheets of it at a time, we have something that can benefit many aspects of our lives.”

Gorodetsky and his UCI team members published a research paper in Nature Sustainability in order to explain the breakthrough, and announced the ability to mass produce this material, which Gorodetsky hopes can lead to more sustainable practices in the food industry.  

“The combined manufacturing strategy that we have now perfected in our lab is a real game changer,” said Gorodetsky. “We have been working with cephalopod-inspired adaptive materials and systems for years but previously have only been able to fabricate them over relatively small areas. Now there is finally a path to making this stuff roll-by-roll in a factory.”

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