Robots inspired by sea cucumbers turn from liquid into solid

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Shape-shifting robots inspired by sea cucumbers can quickly switch between liquid and solid, opening up the possibilities of breakthrough treatments in medicine, new research shows.

The miniature robots could be used in surgery and could change the face of engineering, researchers said.

Traditional robots are hard and rigid, while ‘soft’ robots have been flexible but weak and difficult to control.

“Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid states gives them greater functionality,” said Chengfeng Pan, an engineer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who led the study.

Researchers put their robots through an obstacle course of mobility and shape-shifting tests in a study, published Wednesday in the journal Matter.

The team created a new material – dubbed the “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transition machine” – by embedding magnetic particles in gallium, a metal with a very low melting point of 29.8°C.

They also tested the material’s mobility and strength in different contexts.

The robots jumped canals, climbed walls and split in two to move other objects together before reuniting.

In one video, a robot in the form of a person is liquefied to seep through a grid before reforming.

“Now we’re pushing this material system into more practical ways of solving some very specific medical and technical problems,” Pan said.

On the biomedical side, the team used the robots to remove a foreign object from a model stomach and deliver drugs into the stomach on demand.

They also show how soldering robots can seep into hard-to-reach circuits and be a mechanical “screw” for mounting parts in hard-to-reach spaces.

“Future work should further explore how these robots might be used within a biomedical context,” said senior author and mechanical engineer Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon University.

“What we’re showing are just one-off demonstrations, proofs of concept, but a lot more research will be needed to figure out how this could actually be used for drug delivery or for foreign object removal.”

Updated: January 25, 2023, 4:07 PM

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