Squishy robots from shape-shifting, self-powered material could mimic living things

squishy robot doll
CC BY 2.0 Christelle

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have demonstrated a new material that can be programmed -- and energized -- to move by means of light patterns shining on it.

The material combines a Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gel with spirobenzopyran (SP), two remarkable materials. BZ gel oscillates (sways back and forth) when exposed to light. It the oscillation at one end of the material differs from the other, it can cause the material to move in an oozing manner. Spirobenzopyran molecules contains ring structures that change shape when exposed to light.

Together, the BZ gel and SP give scientists two mechanisms that can be manipulated to result in differing types of movement. And because the light provides the energy for the movement, no batteries nor wires are required.

Olga Kuksenok & Anna C. Balazs, University of Pittsburgh/Promo image

For now, the "robot" is about as appealing as an amoeba, but as one author of the study, Dr. Kuksenok, notes: "To put it simply, in order for a robot to be able to move more autonomously in a more biomimetic way, it's better if it's soft and squishy. It's ability to grab and carry something isn't impeded by non-flexible, hard edges. You'd also like its energy source incorporated into the design so that it's not carrying that as extra baggage. The SP-BZ gel is pointing us in that direction."

Read more: Designing Dual-functionalized Gels for Self-reconfiguration and Autonomous Motion

Tags: Biomimicry | Chemicals | Materials


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