Making intricate carbon fiber forms is an arduous, expensive process. And when they're complete, they stay that shape forever. But scientists at MIT have managed to literally bend carbon fiber – along with wood and plastic – to their will, and do it on-demand.

The project was born out of MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, where the program's director, Skylar Tibbits, has been working on the technology for the past few years.

"The idea here is to take existing material systems like fibres, sheets, strands and three-dimensional objects and program them to change shape and property on demand," Tibbits tells Wired UK. "What we've done in the past six months is try to develop a suite of materials that have different activation energies, like heat, light, water, air pressure, et cetera."

Starting with a flexible material like carbon fiber, Tibbits and his colleagues print a series of intricate strips that reacts to outside stimuli. When it does, it causes the underlying materials – carbon fiber, in this case – to bend into a predefined form.

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In aerospace, these strips would react to the heat of the engine and reform itself to direct more airflow to places that need cooling. You could see how that could work in an engine bay, too, or even better, as a new form of active aerodynamics.

The programmable carbon fibre is also being explored by supercar manufacturer Briggs Automotive Company for aerodynamics, working on the first non-mechanical morphing car airfoil. "The airfoil can change in different weather conditions," Tibbits explains. "So flaps can open up to give them more control or stability in the back, and then they can close down when it gets dry again."

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Aside from being just plain awesome, the ability to adapt without any mechanical components would be a huge boon for automaker's trying to scrub weight. By nixing the motors, wiring, batteries, and anything else necessary to change the shape of materials on the fly, the weight savings – particularly on supercars – could pay massive dividends. And unlike rudimentary active aero that relies on airflow, these materials could form any shape designers envision, and do it with something as elemental as a drop of water.