Scientists revolutionize robotics with plant-inspired liquid metals

The study was published in Advanced Functional Materials as a front cover. Credit: Li Xiaofei.

In the ever-evolving world of robotics, a groundbreaking discovery has been made by a team of dedicated researchers.

Professors Tian Xingyou and Zhang Xian from the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science, part of the Chinese Academy of Science, have spearheaded a project that is set to change the face of flexible robotics.

Their innovation?

Using liquid metal to create actuators that mimic the movement of plant tendrils.

Published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, and even featured on its front cover, this research introduces a new era of robotics. Dr. Li Xiaofei, the lead author of the study, shared their source of inspiration: the natural world.

Specifically, how plants use their tip-sensitive regions to form tendrils. By observing nature, the team has unlocked a new potential in robotics.

So, what exactly is this groundbreaking invention?

It’s a Liquid Metal/Polyimide/Polytetrafluoroethylene (LM/PI/PTFE) programmable photothermal actuator.

In simpler terms, it’s a flexible device made from a combination of liquid metal and polymers that can change shape when exposed to light or heat.

Liquid metals have emerged as promising materials in the realm of flexible robotics. They are unique because they can become tough without needing additional reinforcing materials.

This makes them ideal for creating photothermal actuators – devices that convert light or heat into motion.

In their research, the team created an actuator from a liquid metal/polyimide (LM/PI) film and PTFE tape. The LM/PI film serves as a support and photothermal layer, while the PTFE tape acts like a muscle that can contract and bend.

When assembled at different angles, this tape causes the device to curl like plant tendrils, hence the term “programmable.” The beauty of this design is in its versatility – by simply changing the assembly, various shapes and motions can be achieved.

The performance of this new actuator is impressive. It shows a large degree of deformation, responds quickly, remains stable over time, and can bear significant loads. These characteristics make it ideal for use in flexible robots, smart devices, and even bionic systems.

Moreover, the team didn’t just stop at creating the actuator. They went a step further by modeling it using finite element analysis. This allowed them to accurately predict how the actuator would bend and move.

With this knowledge, they have successfully designed robots capable of diverse actions such as crawling, rolling, swimming, grasping, and handling objects.

This breakthrough in liquid metal actuators opens up exciting possibilities for the future of robotics, especially in creating more lifelike, flexible, and versatile machines.

It’s a significant leap forward in the quest to develop bionic systems and smart devices that can seamlessly integrate into our daily lives, taking inspiration from the very nature around us.