JUN 23, 2020 1:33 PM PDT

What is "robotic soft matter"?

Research published yesterday in the journal Nature Materials describes the development of “robotic soft matter,” a class of soft materials that imitates living creatures. The technology comes from scientists at Northwestern University who hope that the materials could be used in advanced medicine and environmental remediation.

"We live in an era in which increasingly smarter devices are constantly being developed to help us manage our everyday lives," said lead researcher Samuel I. Stupp from Northwestern. "The next frontier is in the development of new science that will bring inert materials to life for our benefit -- by designing them to acquire capabilities of living creatures."

By “capabilities of living creatures,” Stupp is referring to the materials’ ability to bend, rotate, and move on surfaces when interacting with light. They do so without complex hardware, hydraulics, or electricity. 

How? The structures are made to mimic contracting muscles. They consist of nanoscale peptide assemblies linked to polymer networks designed that are chemically responsive to blue light. So, when the material interacts with blue light, it goes from hydrophilic to hydrophobic and drains water molecules out of the material, thus contracting (and moving!). When light is subsequently taken away, the opposite process occurs, making the material expand. In this way, the material can be controlled by directing the light in certain manners. 

Photo: Pixabay

"From biological systems, we learned that the magic of muscles is based on the connection between assemblies of small proteins and giant protein polymers that expand and contract," Stupp said. "Muscles do this using a chemical fuel rather than light to generate mechanical energy."

What applications could these materials have? The options are limitless, say the researchers, from environmental clean-up to brain surgery. 

"These materials could augment the function of soft robots needed to pick up fragile objects and then release them in a precise location," said Stupp. "In medicine, for example, soft materials with 'living' characteristics could bend or change shape to retrieve blood clots in the brain after a stroke. They also could swim to clean water supplies and seawater or even undertake healing tasks to repair defects in batteries, membranes and chemical reactors."

Sources: Nature Materials, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
JUN 07, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Was Oumuamua Just An Interstellar Hydrogen Iceberg?
JUN 07, 2020
Was Oumuamua Just An Interstellar Hydrogen Iceberg?
If you were following space news outlets back in 2017, then you likely heard about the particularly odd cigar-shaped spa ...
JUN 16, 2020
Space & Astronomy
What Will it Take to Photograph a Black Hole's Photon Ring?
JUN 16, 2020
What Will it Take to Photograph a Black Hole's Photon Ring?
Just over a year ago, astronomers tapped into the power of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio t ...
JUL 19, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Did interstellar organic material form water on Earth?
JUL 19, 2020
Did interstellar organic material form water on Earth?
A recent study published in Scientific Reports sheds light on how our planet’s water could have first come to be. ...
JUL 22, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Scientists Obtained Clues on the Mysteriously Fast Movement of Earth's Magnetic Poles
JUL 22, 2020
Scientists Obtained Clues on the Mysteriously Fast Movement of Earth's Magnetic Poles
Earth's magnetic poles have been on a hasty move in the last two decades. Recently, the geoscientists at Leeds Unive ...
JUL 27, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Cobalt-doped titanium-dioxide stops the reproduction of listeria monocytogenes
JUL 27, 2020
Cobalt-doped titanium-dioxide stops the reproduction of listeria monocytogenes
Scientists suggest adding cobalt-doped titanium-dioxide (CoO-TiO2) to foods in order to prevent the spread of listeria, ...
AUG 07, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Your brain's chemistry with a nondeceptive placebo
AUG 07, 2020
Your brain's chemistry with a nondeceptive placebo
Does the placebo effect work on you? The placebo effect is the idea that your brain chemistry can be altered by the mere ...
Loading Comments...