Shape-shifting liquid metal robots may no longer be just science fiction.
The miniature machines can switch from solid to liquid and vice versa to squeeze into tight spaces and perform tasks like soldering circuit boards, researchers reported in Matter on Jan. 25. .
Metallic gallium owes this phase-shifting property, which can be controlled remotely with a magnetic field. Researchers embedded magnetic particles in the metal to direct the movement of the metal with a magnet. This new material could help scientists develop flexible, pliable robots that can navigate through narrow passages and be guided from the outside.
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Scientists have been developing magnetically controlled soft robots for years. Most existing materials for these bots are made of stretchy but solid materials that cannot pass through the tightest spaces, or magnetic liquids that are fluid but incapable of carrying heavy objects (SN: 7/ 18/19).
In a new study, researchers blended both approaches after taking inspiration from nature (SN: 3/3/21). A sea cucumber, for example, can change its hardness very rapidly and reversibly, says Carmel He Majidi, a mechanical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Our challenge as engineers is to mimic that in soft material systems.
So the team turned to gallium, a metal that melts just 30 degrees Celsius above room temperature. Rather than connecting a heater to a mass of metal to change its state, the researchers exposed it to a rapidly changing magnetic field causing it to liquefy. An alternating magnetic field creates electricity in the gallium, which heats and melts it. The material re-solidifies when allowed to cool to room temperature.
Magnetic particles are scattered throughout the gallium so that a permanent magnet can drag it along. For solids, a magnet can move matter at a speed of about 1.5 meters per second. Upgraded gallium can also carry about 10,000 times its weight.
External magnets can manipulate liquid shapes to stretch, split, and coalesce. However, controlling fluid movement is more difficult. This is because the particles in gallium rotate freely and the magnetic poles are misaligned as a result of melting. Due to the different orientations, the particles move in different directions in response to the magnet.
Majidi and colleagues tested the strategy on small machines performing a variety of tasks. In a demonstration for the movie “Terminator 2,” a toy person escaped from a prison cell, melted a bar, and re-solidified it back to its original shape using a mold placed just outside the bar.
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On the more practical side, one machine took a small ball out of a model of the human stomach, melted slightly to envelop the foreign body, and eject it from the organ. Therefore, it becomes mucus inside the actual human body. Raises the melting point of the material, the authors say. In another demonstration, the material was liquefied and re-cured for soldering circuit boards.
With the help of variable permanent magnets, researchers turned gallium chunks into shape-changing devices. In the first clip, a toy figure escapes from a prison cell by liquefying, sliding down a bar, and re-solidifying using a mold placed just outside the bar. In the second clip, one device takes a ball out of a model of the human stomach, which melts slightly, envelops the foreign body, and is expelled from the organ.
The phase-shifting material is a big step in the field, but questions remain about its biomedical application, said Amir Jafari, a biomedical engineer at the University of North Texas in Denton. He was not involved in this research. According to him, one of his major challenges is to precisely control the magnetic forces inside the human body generated from external devices.
It’s an intriguing tool, says Nicholas Vila, a robotics engineer at Harvard University. But scientists working on soft robotics are constantly creating new materials, he adds.
The real innovation lies in combining these different and innovative materials.
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