Tag Archives: soft robotics

Liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids and more

I’d have to see it to believe it but researchers at the US Dept. of Energy (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have developed a new kind of ‘bijel’ which would allow for some pretty nifty robotics. From a Sept. 25, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new two-dimensional film, made of polymers and nanoparticles and developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), can direct two different non-mixing liquids into a variety of exotic architectures. This finding could lead to soft robotics, liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids, and a host of new materials that use soft, rather than solid, substances.

The study, reported today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, presents the newest entry in a class of substances known as bicontinuous jammed emulsion gels, or bijels, which hold promise as a malleable liquid that can support catalytic reactions, electrical conductivity, and energy conversion.

A Sept. 25, 2017 LBNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Bijels are typically made of immiscible, or non-mixing, liquids. People who shake their bottle of vinaigrette before pouring the dressing on their salad are familiar with such liquids. As soon as the shaking stops, the liquids start to separate again, with the lower density liquid – often oil – rising to the top.

Trapping, or jamming, particles where these immiscible liquids meet can prevent the liquids from completely separating, stabilizing the substance into a bijel. What makes bijels remarkable is that, rather than just making the spherical droplets that we normally see when we try to mix oil and water, the particles at the interface shape the liquids into complex networks of interconnected fluid channels.

Bijels are notoriously difficult to make, however, involving exact temperatures at precisely timed stages. In addition, the liquid channels are normally more than 5 micrometers across, making them too large to be useful in energy conversion and catalysis.

“Bijels have long been of interest as next-generation materials for energy applications and chemical synthesis,” said study lead author Caili Huang. “The problem has been making enough of them, and with features of the right size. In this work, we crack that problem.”

Huang started the work as a graduate student with Thomas Russell, the study’s principal investigator, at Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, and he continued the project as a postdoctoral researcher at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Creating a new bijel recipe

The method described in this new study simplifies the bijel process by first using specially coated particles about 10-20 nanometers in diameter. The smaller-sized particles line the liquid interfaces much more quickly than the ones used in traditional bijels, making the smaller channels that are highly valued for applications.

Illustration shows key stages of bijel formation. Clockwise from top left, two non-mixing liquids are shown. Ligands (shown in yellow) with amine groups are dispersed throughout the oil or solvent, and nanoparticles coated with carboxylic acids (shown as blue dots) are scattered in the water. With vigorous shaking, the nanoparticles and ligands form a “supersoap” that gets trapped at the interface of the two liquids. The bottom panel is a magnified view of the jammed nanoparticle supersoap. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL)

“We’ve basically taken liquids like oil and water and given them a structure, and it’s a structure that can be changed,” said Russell, a visiting faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab. “If the nanoparticles are responsive to electrical, magnetic, or mechanical stimuli, the bijels can become reconfigurable and re-shaped on demand by an external field.”

The researchers were able to prepare new bijels from a variety of common organic, water-insoluble solvents, such as toluene, that had ligands dissolved in it, and deionized water, which contained the nanoparticles. To ensure thorough mixing of the liquids, they subjected the emulsion to a vortex spinning at 3,200 revolutions per minute.

“This extreme shaking creates a whole bunch of new places where these particles and polymers can meet each other,” said study co-author Joe Forth, a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division. “You’re synthesizing a lot of this material, which is in effect a thin, 2-D coating of the liquid surfaces in the system.”

The liquids remained a bijel even after one week, a sign of the system’s stability.

Russell, who is also a professor of polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, added that these shape-shifting characteristics would be valuable in microreactors, microfluidic devices, and soft actuators.

Nanoparticle supersoap

Nanoparticles had not been seriously considered in bijels before because their small size made them hard to trap in the liquid interface. To resolve that problem, the researchers coated nano-sized particles with carboxylic acids and put them in water. They then took polymers with an added amine group – a derivative of ammonia – and dissolved them in the toluene.

At left is a vial of bijel stabilized with nanoparticle surfactants. On the right is the same vial after a week of inversion, showing that the nanoparticle kept the liquids from moving. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL)

This configuration took advantage of the amine group’s affinity to water, a characteristic that is comparable to surfactants, like soap. Their nanoparticle “supersoap” was designed so that the nanoparticles join ligands, forming an octopus-like shape with a polar head and nonpolar legs that get jammed at the interface, the researchers said.

“Bijels are really a new material, and also excitingly weird in that they are kinetically arrested in these unusual configurations,” said study co-author Brett Helms, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. “The discovery that you can make these bijels with simple ingredients is a surprise. We all have access to oils and water and nanocrystals, allowing broad tunability in bijel properties. This platform also allows us to experiment with new ways to control their shape and function since they are both responsive and reconfigurable.”

The nanoparticles were made of silica, but the researchers noted that in previous studies they used graphene and carbon nanotubes to form nanoparticle surfactants.

“The key is that the nanoparticles can be made of many materials,” said Russell.  “The most important thing is what’s on the surface.”

This is an animation of the bijel

3-D rendering of the nanoparticle bijel taken by confocal microscope. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL [Oak Ridge National Laboratory] and Joe Forth/Berkeley Lab)

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bicontinuous structured liquids with sub-micrometre domains using nanoparticle surfactants by Caili Huang, Joe Forth, Weiyu Wang, Kunlun Hong, Gregory S. Smith, Brett A. Helms & Thomas P. Russell. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.182 25 September 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

From flubber to thubber

Flubber (flying rubber) is an imaginary material that provided a plot point for two Disney science fiction comedies, The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961 which was remade in 1997 as Flubber. By contrast, ‘thubber’ (thermally conductive rubber) is a real life new material developed at Carnegie Mellon University (US).

A Feb. 13, 2017 news item on phys.org makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

Carmel Majidi and Jonathan Malen of Carnegie Mellon University have developed a thermally conductive rubber material that represents a breakthrough for creating soft, stretchable machines and electronics. The findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

The new material, nicknamed “thubber,” is an electrically insulating composite that exhibits an unprecedented combination of metal-like thermal conductivity, elasticity similar to soft, biological tissue, and can stretch over six times its initial length.

A Feb.13, 2017 Carnegie Mellon University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note A link has been removed),

“Our combination of high thermal conductivity and elasticity is especially critical for rapid heat dissipation in applications such as wearable computing and soft robotics, which require mechanical compliance and stretchable functionality,” said Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Applications could extend to industries like athletic wear and sports medicine—think of lighted clothing for runners and heated garments for injury therapy. Advanced manufacturing, energy, and transportation are other areas where stretchable electronic material could have an impact.

“Until now, high power devices have had to be affixed to rigid, inflexible mounts that were the only technology able to dissipate heat efficiently,” said Malen, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Now, we can create stretchable mounts for LED lights or computer processors that enable high performance without overheating in applications that demand flexibility, such as light-up fabrics and iPads that fold into your wallet.”

The key ingredient in “thubber” is a suspension of non-toxic, liquid metal microdroplets. The liquid state allows the metal to deform with the surrounding rubber at room temperature. When the rubber is pre-stretched, the droplets form elongated pathways that are efficient for heat travel. Despite the amount of metal, the material is also electrically insulating.

To demonstrate these findings, the team mounted an LED light onto a strip of the material to create a safety lamp worn around a jogger’s leg. The “thubber” dissipated the heat from the LED, which would have otherwise burned the jogger. The researchers also created a soft robotic fish that swims with a “thubber” tail, without using conventional motors or gears.

“As the field of flexible electronics grows, there will be a greater need for materials like ours,” said Majidi. “We can also see it used for artificial muscles that power bio-inspired robots.”

Majidi and Malen acknowledge the efforts of lead authors Michael Bartlett, Navid Kazem, and Matthew Powell-Palm in performing this multidisciplinary work. They also acknowledge funding from the Air Force, NASA, and the Army Research Office.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

High thermal conductivity in soft elastomers with elongated liquid metal inclusions by Michael D. Bartlett, Navid Kazem, Matthew J. Powell-Palm, Xiaonan Huang, Wenhuan Sun, Jonathan A. Malen, and Carmel Majidi.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1616377114

This paper is open access.

A biocompatible (implantable) micromachine (microrobot)

I appreciate the detail and information in this well written Jan. 4, 2017 Columbia University news release (h/t Jan. 4, 2016 Nanowerk; Note: Links have been removed),

A team of researchers led by Biomedical Engineering Professor Sam Sia has developed a way to manufacture microscale-sized machines from biomaterials that can safely be implanted in the body. Working with hydrogels, which are biocompatible materials that engineers have been studying for decades, Sia has invented a new technique that stacks the soft material in layers to make devices that have three-dimensional, freely moving parts. The study, published online January 4, 2017, in Science Robotics, demonstrates a fast manufacturing method Sia calls “implantable microelectromechanical systems” (iMEMS).

By exploiting the unique mechanical properties of hydrogels, the researchers developed a “locking mechanism” for precise actuation and movement of freely moving parts, which can provide functions such as valves, manifolds, rotors, pumps, and drug delivery. They were able to tune the biomaterials within a wide range of mechanical and diffusive properties and to control them after implantation without a sustained power supply such as a toxic battery. They then tested the “payload” delivery in a bone cancer model and found that the triggering of release of doxorubicin from the device over 10 days showed high treatment efficacy and low toxicity, at 1/10 of the standard systemic chemotherapy dose.

“Overall, our iMEMS platform enables development of biocompatible implantable microdevices with a wide range of intricate moving components that can be wirelessly controlled on demand and solves issues of device powering and biocompatibility,” says Sia, also a member of the Data Science Institute. “We’re really excited about this because we’ve been able to connect the world of biomaterials with that of complex, elaborate medical devices. Our platform has a large number of potential applications, including the drug delivery system demonstrated in our paper which is linked to providing tailored drug doses for precision medicine.”

I particularly like this bit about hydrogels being a challenge to work with and the difficulties of integrating both rigid and soft materials,

Most current implantable microdevices have static components rather than moving parts and, because they require batteries or other toxic electronics, have limited biocompatibility. Sia’s team spent more than eight years working on how to solve this problem. “Hydrogels are difficult to work with, as they are soft and not compatible with traditional machining techniques,” says Sau Yin Chin, lead author of the study who worked with Sia. “We have tuned the mechanical properties and carefully matched the stiffness of structures that come in contact with each other within the device. Gears that interlock have to be stiff in order to allow for force transmission and to withstand repeated actuation. Conversely, structures that form locking mechanisms have to be soft and flexible to allow for the gears to slip by them during actuation, while at the same time they have to be stiff enough to hold the gears in place when the device is not actuated. We also studied the diffusive properties of the hydrogels to ensure that the loaded drugs do not easily diffuse through the hydrogel layers.”

The team used light to polymerize sheets of gel and incorporated a stepper mechanization to control the z-axis and pattern the sheets layer by layer, giving them three-dimensionality. Controlling the z-axis enabled the researchers to create composite structures within one layer of the hydrogel while managing the thickness of each layer throughout the fabrication process. They were able to stack multiple layers that are precisely aligned and, because they could polymerize a layer at a time, one right after the other, the complex structure was built in under 30 minutes.

Sia’s iMEMS technique addresses several fundamental considerations in building biocompatible microdevices, micromachines, and microrobots: how to power small robotic devices without using toxic batteries, how to make small biocompatible moveable components that are not silicon which has limited biocompatibility, and how to communicate wirelessly once implanted (radio frequency microelectronics require power, are relatively large, and are not biocompatible). The researchers were able to trigger the iMEMS device to release additional payloads over days to weeks after implantation. They were also able to achieve precise actuation by using magnetic forces to induce gear movements that, in turn, bend structural beams made of hydrogels with highly tunable properties. (Magnetic iron particles are commonly used and FDA-approved for human use as contrast agents.)

In collaboration with Francis Lee, an orthopedic surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center at the time of the study, the team tested the drug delivery system on mice with bone cancer. The iMEMS system delivered chemotherapy adjacent to the cancer, and limited tumor growth while showing less toxicity than chemotherapy administered throughout the body.

“These microscale components can be used for microelectromechanical systems, for larger devices ranging from drug delivery to catheters to cardiac pacemakers, and soft robotics,” notes Sia. “People are already making replacement tissues and now we can make small implantable devices, sensors, or robots that we can talk to wirelessly. Our iMEMS system could bring the field a step closer in developing soft miniaturized robots that can safely interact with humans and other living systems.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Additive manufacturing of hydrogel-based materials for next-generation implantable medical devices by Sau Yin Chin, Yukkee Cheung Poh, Anne-Céline Kohler, Jocelyn T. Compton, Lauren L. Hsu, Kathryn M. Lau, Sohyun Kim, Benjamin W. Lee, Francis Y. Lee, and Samuel K. Sia. Science Robotics  04 Jan 2017: Vol. 2, Issue 2, DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aah6451

This paper appears to be open access.

The researchers have provided a video demonstrating their work (you may want to read the caption below before watching),

Magnetic actuation of the Geneva drive device. A magnet is placed about 1cm below and without contact with the device. The rotating magnet results in the rotational movement of the smaller driving gear. With each full rotation of this driving gear, the larger driven gear is engaged and rotates by 60º, exposing the next reservoir to the aperture on the top layer of the device.

—Video courtesy of Sau Yin Chin/Columbia Engineering

You can hear some background conversation but it doesn’t seem to have been included for informational purposes.

Morphing airplane wing

Long a science fiction trope, ‘morphing’, in this case, an airplane wing, is closer to reality with this work from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From a Nov. 3, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert),

When the Wright brothers accomplished their first powered flight more than a century ago, they controlled the motion of their Flyer 1 aircraft using wires and pulleys that bent and twisted the wood-and-canvas wings. This system was quite different than the separate, hinged flaps and ailerons that have performed those functions on most aircraft ever since. But now, thanks to some high-tech wizardry developed by engineers at MIT and NASA, some aircraft may be returning to their roots, with a new kind of bendable, “morphing” wing.

The new wing architecture, which could greatly simplify the manufacturing process and reduce fuel consumption by improving the wing’s aerodynamics, as well as improving its agility, is based on a system of tiny, lightweight subunits that could be assembled by a team of small specialized robots, and ultimately could be used to build the entire airframe. The wing would be covered by a “skin” made of overlapping pieces that might resemble scales or feathers.

The new concept is described in the journal Soft Robotics, in a paper by Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA); Benjamin Jenett, a CBA graduate student; Kenneth Cheung PhD ’12, a CBA alumnus and NASA research scientist; and four others.

Researchers have been trying for many years to achieve a reliable way of deforming wings as a substitute for the conventional, separate, moving surfaces, but all those efforts “have had little practical impact,” Gershenfeld says. The biggest problem was that most of these attempts relied on deforming the wing through the use of mechanical control structures within the wing, but these structures tended to be so heavy that they canceled out any efficiency advantages produced by the smoother aerodynamic surfaces. They also added complexity and reliability issues.

By contrast, Gershenfeld says, “We make the whole wing the mechanism. It’s not something we put into the wing.” In the team’s new approach, the whole shape of the wing can be changed, and twisted uniformly along its length, by activating two small motors that apply a twisting pressure to each wingtip.

Like building with blocks

The basic principle behind the new concept is the use of an array of tiny, lightweight structural pieces, which Gershenfeld calls “digital materials,” that can be assembled into a virtually infinite variety of shapes, much like assembling a structure from Lego blocks. The assembly, performed by hand for this initial experiment, could be done by simple miniature robots that would crawl along or inside the structure as it took shape. The team has already developed prototypes of such robots.

The individual pieces are strong and stiff, but the exact choice of the dimensions and materials used for the pieces, and the geometry of how they are assembled, allow for a precise tuning of the flexibility of the final shape. For the initial test structure, the goal was to allow the wing to twist in a precise way that would substitute for the motion of separate structural pieces (such as the small ailerons at the trailing edges of conventional wings), while providing a single, smooth aerodynamic surface.

Building up a large and complex structure from an array of small, identical building blocks, which have an exceptional combination of strength, light weight, and flexibility, greatly simplifies the manufacturing process, Gershenfeld explains. While the construction of light composite wings for today’s aircraft requires large, specialized equipment for layering and hardening the material, the new modular structures could be rapidly manufactured in mass quantities and then assembled robotically in place.

Gershenfeld and his team have been pursuing this approach to building complex structures for years, with many potential applications for robotic devices of various kinds. For example, this method could lead to robotic arms and legs whose shapes could bend continuously along their entire length, rather than just having a fixed number of joints.

This research, says Cheung, “presents a general strategy for increasing the performance of highly compliant — that is, ‘soft’ — robots and mechanisms,” by replacing conventional flexible materials with new cellular materials “that are much lower weight, more tunable, and can be made to dissipate energy at much lower rates” while having equivalent stiffness.

Saving fuel, cutting emissions

While exploring possible applications of this nascent technology, Gershenfeld and his team consulted with NASA engineers and others seeking ways to improve the efficiency of aircraft manufacturing and flight. They learned that “the idea that you could continuously deform a wing shape to do pure lift and roll has been a holy grail in the field, for both efficiency and agility,” he says. Given the importance of fuel costs in both the economics of the airline industry and that sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, even small improvements in fuel efficiency could have a significant impact.

Wind-tunnel tests of this structure showed that it at least matches the aerodynamic properties of a conventional wing, at about one-tenth the weight.

The “skin” of the wing also enhances the structure’s performance. It’s made from overlapping strips of flexible material, layered somewhat like feathers or fish scales, allowing for the pieces to move across each other as the wing flexes, while still providing a smooth outer surface.

The modular structure also provides greater ease of both assembly and disassembly: One of this system’s big advantages, in principle, Gershenfeld says, is that when it’s no longer needed, the whole structure can be taken apart into its component parts, which can then be reassembled into something completely different. Similarly, repairs could be made by simply replacing an area of damaged subunits.

“An inspection robot could just find where the broken part is and replace it, and keep the aircraft 100 percent healthy at all times,” says Jenett.

Following up on the successful wind tunnel tests, the team is now extending the work to tests of a flyable unpiloted aircraft, and initial tests have shown great promise, Jenett says. “The first tests were done by a certified test pilot, and he found it so responsive that he decided to do some aerobatics.”

Some of the first uses of the technology may be to make small, robotic aircraft — “super-efficient long-range drones,” Gershenfeld says, that could be used in developing countries as a way of delivering medicines to remote areas.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Digital Morphing Wing: Active Wing Shaping Concept Using Composite Lattice-Based Cellular Structures by Benjamin Jenett, Sam Calisch, Daniel Cellucci, Nick Cramer, Neil Gershenfeld, Sean Swei, and Kenneth C. Cheung. Soft Robotics. October 2016, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/soro.2016.0032. Published online: Oct. 26, 2016

This paper is open access.

A soft heart from Cornell University (US)

Caption: This is an artificial foam heart created by Rob Shepherd and his engineering team at Cornell University. Credit: Cornell University

Caption: This is an artificial foam heart created by Rob Shepherd and his engineering team at Cornell University.
Credit: Cornell University

It’s not exactly what I imagined on seeing the words “foam heart” but this is what researchers at Cornell University have produced as a ‘working concept’. From an Oct. 14, 2015 Cornell University news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Oct. 15, 2015) describes the research in more detail,

Cornell University researchers have developed a new lightweight and stretchable material with the consistency of memory foam that has potential for use in prosthetic body parts, artificial organs and soft robotics. The foam is unique because it can be formed and has connected pores that allow fluids to be pumped through it.

The polymer foam starts as a liquid that can be poured into a mold to create shapes, and because of the pathways for fluids, when air or liquid is pumped through it, the material moves and can change its length by 300 percent.

While applications for use inside the body require federal approval and testing, Cornell researchers are close to making prosthetic body parts with the so-called “elastomer foam.”

“We are currently pretty far along for making a prosthetic hand this way,” said Rob Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and senior author of a paper appearing online and in an upcoming issue of the journal Advanced Materials. Benjamin Mac Murray, a graduate student in Shepherd’s lab, is the paper’s first author.

In the paper, the researchers demonstrated a pump they made into a heart, mimicking both shape and function.

The researchers used carbon fiber and silicone on the outside to fashion a structure that expands at different rates on the surface – to make a spherical shape into an egg shape, for example, that would hold its form when inflated.

“This paper was about exploring the effect of porosity on the actuator, but now we would like to make the foam actuators faster and with higher strength, so we can apply more force. We are also focusing on biocompatibility,” Shepherd said.

Cornell has made a video of researcher Rob Shepherd describing the work,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Poroelastic Foams for Simple Fabrication of Complex Soft Robots by Benjamin C. Mac Murray, Xintong An, Sanlin S. Robinson, Ilse M. van Meerbeek, Kevin W. O’Brien, Huichan Zhao, andRobert F. Shepherd. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201503464 Article first published online: 19 SEP 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Squishy but rigid robots from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

A July 14, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) features robots that mimic mice and other biological constructs or, if you prefer, movie robots,

In the movie “Terminator 2,” the shape-shifting T-1000 robot morphs into a liquid state to squeeze through tight spaces or to repair itself when harmed.

Now a phase-changing material built from wax and foam, and capable of switching between hard and soft states, could allow even low-cost robots to perform the same feat.

The material — developed by Anette Hosoi, a professor of mechanical engineering and applied mathematics at MIT, and her former graduate student Nadia Cheng, alongside researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and Stony Brook University — could be used to build deformable surgical robots. The robots could move through the body to reach a particular point without damaging any of the organs or vessels along the way.

A July 14, 2014 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research further by referencing both octopuses and jello,

Working with robotics company Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., the researchers began developing the material as part of the Chemical Robots program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency was interested in “squishy” robots capable of squeezing through tight spaces and then expanding again to move around a given area, Hosoi says — much as octopuses do.

But if a robot is going to perform meaningful tasks, it needs to be able to exert a reasonable amount of force on its surroundings, she says. “You can’t just create a bowl of Jell-O, because if the Jell-O has to manipulate an object, it would simply deform without applying significant pressure to the thing it was trying to move.”

What’s more, controlling a very soft structure is extremely difficult: It is much harder to predict how the material will move, and what shapes it will form, than it is with a rigid robot.

So the researchers decided that the only way to build a deformable robot would be to develop a material that can switch between a soft and hard state, Hosoi says. “If you’re trying to squeeze under a door, for example, you should opt for a soft state, but if you want to pick up a hammer or open a window, you need at least part of the machine to be rigid,” she says.

Compressible and self-healing

To build a material capable of shifting between squishy and rigid states, the researchers coated a foam structure in wax. They chose foam because it can be squeezed into a small fraction of its normal size, but once released will bounce back to its original shape.

The wax coating, meanwhile, can change from a hard outer shell to a soft, pliable surface with moderate heating. This could be done by running a wire along each of the coated foam struts and then applying a current to heat up and melt the surrounding wax. Turning off the current again would allow the material to cool down and return to its rigid state.

In addition to switching the material to its soft state, heating the wax in this way would also repair any damage sustained, Hosoi says. “This material is self-healing,” she says. “So if you push it too far and fracture the coating, you can heat it and then cool it, and the structure returns to its original configuration.”

To build the material, the researchers simply placed the polyurethane foam in a bath of melted wax. They then squeezed the foam to encourage it to soak up the wax, Cheng says. “A lot of materials innovation can be very expensive, but in this case you could just buy really low-cost polyurethane foam and some wax from a craft store,” she says.

In order to study the properties of the material in more detail, they then used a 3-D printer to build a second version of the foam lattice structure, to allow them to carefully control the position of each of the struts and pores.

When they tested the two materials, they found that the printed lattice was more amenable to analysis than the polyurethane foam, although the latter would still be fine for low-cost applications, Hosoi says.

The wax coating could also be replaced by a stronger material, such as solder, she adds.

Hosoi is now investigating the use of other unconventional materials for robotics, such as magnetorheological and electrorheological fluids. These materials consist of a liquid with particles suspended inside, and can be made to switch from a soft to a rigid state with the application of a magnetic or electric field.

When it comes to artificial muscles for soft and biologically inspired robots, we tend to think of controlling shape through bending or contraction, says Carmel Majidi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, who was not involved in the research. “But for a lot of robotics tasks, reversibly tuning the mechanical rigidity of a joint can be just as important,” he says. “This work is a great demonstration of how thermally controlled rigidity-tuning could potentially be used in soft robotics.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Thermally Tunable, Self-Healing Composites for Soft Robotic Applications by Nadia G. Cheng, Arvind Gopinath, Lifeng Wang, Karl Iagnemma, and Anette E. Hosoi. Macromolecular Materials and Engineering DOI: 10.1002/mame.201400017 Article first published online: 30 JUN 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Squishy wonderfulness: new possibilities for hydrogels

i have two items for this posting about hydrogels and biomimicry (aka biomimetics). One concerns the use of light to transform hydrogels and the other concerns the potential for using hydrogels in ‘soft’ robotics. First, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have found a way to make hydrogels change their shapes, from an Aug. 1, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Some animals—like the octopus and cuttlefish—transform their shape based on environment, fending off attackers or threats in the wild. For decades, researchers have worked toward mimicking similar biological responses in non-living organisms, as it would have significant implications in the medical arena.

Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have demonstrated such a biomimetic response using hydrogels—a material that constitutes most contact lenses and microfluidic or fluid-controlled technologies.

The Aug. 1, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release, which originated the news item, offers this description from the paper’s lead authorl,

“Imagine an apartment with a particular arrangement of rooms all in one location,” said lead author Anna Balazs, Pitt Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering. “Now, consider the possibility of being able to shine a particular configuration of lights on this structure and thereby completely changing not only the entire layout, but also the location of the apartment. This is what we’ve demonstrated with hydrogels.”

The news release goes on to provide more specific details about the work,

Together with Olga Kuksenok, research associate professor in the Swanson School, Balazs experimented with a newer type of hydrogel containing spirobenzopyran molecules. Such materials had been previously shown to form distinct 2-D patterns on initially flat surfaces when introduced to varying displays of light and are hydrophilic (“liking” water) in the dark but become hydrophobic (“disliking” water) under blue light illumination. Therefore, Balazs and Kuksenok anticipated that light could be a useful stimulus for tailoring the gel’s shape.

Using computer modeling, the Pitt team demonstrated that the gels “ran away” when exposed to the light, exhibiting direct, sustained motion. The team also factored in heat—combining the light and local variations in temperature to further control the samples’ motions. Controlling a material with light and temperature could be applicable, Balazs said, in terms of regulating the movement of a microscopic “conveyor belt” or “elevator” in a microfluidic device.

“This theoretical modeling points toward a new way of configuring the gels into any shape, while simultaneously driving the gels to move due to the presence of light,” said Kuksenok.

“Consider, for example, that you could take one sheet of hydrogel and, with the appropriate use of light, fashion it into a lens-shaped object, which could be used in optical applications”, added Balazs.

The team also demonstrated that the gels could undergo dynamic reconfiguration, meaning that, with a different combination of lights, the gel could be used for another purpose. Reconfigurable systems are particularly useful because they are reusable, leading to a significant reduction in cost.

“You don’t need to construct a new device for every new application,” said Balazs. “By swiping light over the system in different directions, you can further control the movements of a system, further regulating the flow of materials.”

Balazs said this type of dynamic reconfiguration in response to external cues is particularly advantageous in the realm of functional materials. Such processes, she said, would have a dramatic effect on manufacturing and sustainability, since the same sample could be used and reused for multiple applications.

The team will now study the effect of embedding microscopic fibers into the gel to further control the shape and response of the material to other stimuli.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Modeling the Photoinduced Reconfiguration and Directed Motion of Polymer Gels by Olga Kuksenok and Anna C. Balazs. Article first published online: 31 JUL 2013, Adv. Funct. Mater.. doi: 10.1002/adfm.201203876

© 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall. However, there is a video of Anna Balazs’s June 27, 2013 talk (Reconfigurable assemblies of active, auto-chemotactic gels) on these gels at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Meanwhile, researchers at North Carolina State University are pursuing a different line of query involving hydrogels. From an Aug. 2, 2013 North Carolina State University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new technique for creating devices out of a water-based hydrogel material that can be patterned, folded and used to manipulate objects. The technique holds promise for use in “soft robotics” and biomedical applications.

“This work brings us one step closer to developing new soft robotics technologies that mimic biological systems and can work in aqueous environments,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

“In the nearer term, the technique may have applications for drug delivery or tissue scaffolding and directing cell growth in three dimensions, for example,” says Dr. Orlin Velev, INVISTA Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State, the second senior author of the paper.

The technique they’ve developed uses hydrogels, which are water-based gels composed of water and a small fraction of polymer molecules. Hydrogels are elastic, translucent and – in theory – biocompatible. The researchers found a way to modify and pattern sections of hydrogel electrically by using a copper electrode to inject positively charged copper ions into the material. Those ions bond with negatively charged sites on the polymer network in the hydrogel, essentially linking the polymer molecules to each other and making the material stiffer and more resilient. The researchers can target specific areas with the electrodes to create a framework of stiffened material within the hydrogel. The resulting patterns of ions are stable for months in water.

“The bonds between the biopolymer molecules and the copper ions also pull the molecular strands closer together, causing the hydrogel to bend or flex,” Velev says. “And the more copper ions we inject into the hydrogel by flowing current through the electrodes, the further it bends.”

The researchers were able to take advantage of the increased stiffness and bending behavior in patterned sections to make the hydrogel manipulate objects. For example, the researchers created a V-shaped segment of hydrogel. When copper ions were injected into the bottom of the V, the hydrogel flexed – closing on an object as if the hydrogel were a pair of soft tweezers. By injecting ions into the back side of the hydrogel, the tweezers opened – releasing the object.

The researchers also created a chemically actuated “grabber” out of an X-shaped segment of hydrogel with a patterned framework on the back of the X. When the hydrogel was immersed in ethanol, the non-patterned hydrogel shrank. But because the patterned framework was stiffer than the surrounding hydrogel, the X closed like the petals of a flower, grasping an object. When the X-shaped structure was placed in water, the hydrogel expanded, allowing the “petals” to unfold and release the object. Video of the hydrogels in action is available here.

“We are currently planning to use this technique to develop motile, biologically compatible microdevices,” Velev says.

“It’s also worth noting that this technique works with ions other than copper, such as calcium, which are biologically relevant,” Dickey says.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the article,

Reversible patterning and actuation of hydrogels by electrically assisted ionoprinting by Etienne Palleau, Daniel Morales, Michael D. Dickey & Orlin D. Velev. Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2257 doi:10.1038/ncomms3257 Published 02 August 2013

This article is behind a paywall.