Engineers have developed a bizarre new material that can be coaxed into new shapes by heat or light, allowing it to assemble and disassemble itself.

Researchers in the US have combined several smart abilities, including shape memory behaviour, light-activated movement and self-healing behaviour, into one material.

Materials that can react to external stimuli, like light or heat, have a variety of potential applications, such as for actuators, drug delivery systems and self-assembling devices.

For instance, smart materials could be used to make an unfolding solar panel on a satellite that would move without the need for battery power.

But smart materials have been limited by the difficulty of their construction, and the fact they can usually only perform one function at a time, until now.

A team at Washington State University worked with a class of long-chain molecules, called liquid crystalline networks (LCNs), which provide order in one direction and give material unique properties.

The researchers took advantage of the way the material changes in response to heat to induce a unique three-way shape shifting behaviour.

They added groups of atoms that react to polarised light and used dynamic chemical bonds to improve the material's reprocessing abilities.

The resulting material reacts to light, can remember its shape as it folds and unfolds and can heal itself when damaged.

For instance, a razor blade scratch in the material can be fixed by applying ultraviolet light.

The material's movements can even be pre-programmed, and its properties tailored to specific situations.

The material can be seen in action below.