New 3D-Printed Materials Help Develop Artificial Hands And Further Soft Robotics

What could a material that can heal itself, measure strain, temperature and even humidity be suitable for? The answer: robot hands and arms. At least, that’s exactly the function the researchers had in mind when they managed to develop the very thing many had failed at before.

Attempts were made some time ago to develop a material that could heal itself. Now they have succeeded in doing what many researchers previously failed to do. A new material was developed with robot hands and arms in mind. Not only is it 3D-printed, it impresses with its jelly-like consistency, which enables the material to measure strain, temperature and humidity and to repair itself at room temperature. So, without human intervention, it can start a temporary self-healing process and the robot can resume its work.

„If we incorporate soft sensors into robotics, we can get much more information from them, just as our brains get information about the state of our bodies by straining our muscles”,

says lead researcher David Hardman of the University of Cambridge.

Materials Can Heal Themselves at Room Temperature 

There had been previous attempts to develop self-healing materials. But for this to succeed, they always had to be heated. However for real-world applications, he says, it is more efficient if the materials can heal at room temperature. Because for practical applications, that’s what is actually needed.

„We started with a stretchable gelatin-based material that is cheap, biodegradable and biocompatible, and did various tests to incorporate sensors into the material by adding many conductive components,“

Hardman states.

Material Can be Incorporated Into Flexible And Stretchable Robotic Devices 

How was it possible to develop the material to meet the requirements for efficient self-healing? Printing sensors with sodium chloride (which is basically salt) instead of carbon ink has led to the desired material properties. The salt in the water-filled hydrogel is soluble. Thus, it provides a uniform channel for ion conduction. The electrical resistance of the printed materials was also measured. It was found that changes in strain lead to a linear response that can be optimally used to calculate the deformations of the material. 

The addition of salt has another advantage. It makes it possible to measure strains that were more than three times the original sensor length. This allows the material to be incorporated into flexible and stretchable robotic devices.

New Material is Easy And Relatively Cheap to Produce

The researchers believe that the new material can be produced relatively inexpensively and, moreover, easily. Either 3D printing or casting can be used to produce the material. The new product is preferable to existing materials. This is primarily due to the fact that it has long-term stability and strength without drying out. In addition, it is made of food-grade materials.

„It’s a really good sensor, considering how cheap and easy it is to make. We could build a whole robot out of gelatin and print the sensors where we need them,“

co-author Dr. Thomas George-Thuruthel says.

The materials can be easily integrated into other types of robots because: The self-healing hydrogels bond well with a number of different materials. If further developed, it could be integrated into artificial skins and customized wearable and biodegradable sensors.

The topic of robotics is also relevant for drupa.


What are your thoughts on the new material, have you heard of it before? Let us know in the comments! 

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