At the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), chemists are studying shake gels, a class of inexpensive materials made of clay and polymers that firm up into gels when shaken, then eventually revert to a liquid.
Such gels might be used in shock absorbers for cars, forming into a gel when the car drives over a pothole and adjusting its thickness to the weight of the car and severity of the pothole.
To better understand how these gels work, scientists don special eyewear and enter a 3D visualization tool made up of two floor-to-ceiling displays controlled by NIST-developed software. This puts scientists face-to-face with giant-sized molecules whose behavior can be seen and understood in minutes instead of the weeks required by traditional methods. So far, engineers have determined electric charges play a large role in how shake gels work. Charges affect binding, causing water to adhere to clay in a perpendicular arrangement, which is believed to control gel firmness.
NIST researcher Carlos Gonzalez uses a 3D immersive environment to look inside the molecular structure of shake gels. Photo courtesy of Robert Rathe