Friday, March 1, 2024

Breakthrough Composite Material For Adaptive Robotics

By Akanksha Sondhi Gaur

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Discover how this material’s chameleon-like properties promise to revolutionize robotics, enhancing their adaptability and safety in real-world scenarios.

Research led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign produced a new temperature-dependent 3D-printed polymer composite that can react to its environment. Credit: Science Advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adk0620

Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaignhave unveiled a composite material capable of dynamically altering its behaviour in response to temperature changes, paving the way for the next generation of autonomous robotics that can seamlessly interact with their surroundings. This discovery is the result of a collaborative effort led by Shelly Zhang, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and her graduate student Weichen Li, in conjunction with Professor Tian Chen and graduate student Yue Wang from the University of Houston. Their findings have been published in the prestigious journal Science Advances, marking a significant stride in materials science and robotics technology.

The crux of this innovation lies in integrating computer algorithms, two distinct polymers, and advanced 3D printing techniques. Rather than relying solely on human intuition, the research team leveraged computer modelling to conceive a composite material composed of two polymers that can exhibit distinct behaviours contingent on temperature variations. This material, essentially a chameleon in materials science, can adapt its properties based on either user commands or autonomous environmental sensing. Professor Zhang elaborates, “Creating a material or device that will respond in specific ways depending on its environment is very challenging to conceptualize using human intuition alone—there are just so many design possibilities out there. So, instead, we decided to work with a computer algorithm to help us determine the best combination of materials and geometry.”

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The practical implications of this discovery are monumental. For instance, the team developed a material that mimics the characteristics of soft rubber in low temperatures and transitions into a rigid plastic state in high temperatures. To validate its utility, they fabricated a physical device incorporating this composite material and tested its ability to respond to temperature fluctuations, effectively activating LED lights.

The team mentions that the study demonstrates that it is possible to engineer a material with intelligent temperature-sensing capabilities, and they envision this being very useful in robotics. For example, if a robot’s carrying capacity changes when the temperature changes, the material will ‘know’ to adapt its physical behavior to stop or perform a different task. One key highlight of the research is the optimisation process that enables interpolating the distribution and geometries of the two polymer materials. The researchers are now setting their sights on enhancing the complexity of material behaviour further, aiming to enable it to sense and respond to external factors such as impact velocity. This advancement holds immense promise in enhancing the safety and adaptability of robotic systems, ensuring they can effectively navigate and respond to a wide range of hazards in real-world scenarios.

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