A millimetre-sized robot made from a mix of liquid metal and microscopic magnetic pieces can stretch, move or melt. It could be used to fix electronics or remove objects from the body
25 January 2023
A miniature, shape-shifting robot can liquefy itself and reform, allowing it to complete tasks in hard-to-access places and even escape cages. It could eventually be used as a hands-free soldering machine or a tool for extracting swallowed toxic items.
Robots that are soft and malleable enough to work in narrow, delicate spaces like those in the human body already exist, but they can’t make themselves sturdier and stronger when under pressure or when they must carry something heavier than themselves. Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues created a robot that can not only shape-shift but also become stronger or weaker by alternating between being a liquid and a solid.
They made the millimetre-sized robot from a mix of the liquid metal gallium and microscopic pieces of a magnetic material made of neodymium, iron and boron. When solid, the material was strong enough to support an object 30 times its own mass. To make it soften, stretch, move or melt into a crawling puddle as needed for different tasks, the researchers put it near magnets. The magnets’ customised magnetic fields exerted forces on the tiny magnetic pieces in the robot, moving them and deforming the surrounding metal in different directions.
For instance, the team stretched a robot by applying a magnetic field that pulled these granules in multiple directions. The researchers also used a stronger field to yank the particles upwards, making the robot jump. When Majidi and his colleagues used an alternating magnetic field – one whose shape changes predictably over time – electrons in the robot’s liquid metal formed electric currents. The coursing of these currents through the robot’s body heated it up and eventually made it melt.
“No other material I know of is this good at changing its stiffness this much,” says Majidi.
Exploiting this flexibility, the team made two robots carry and solder a small light bulb onto a circuit board. When they reached their target, the robots simply melted over the light bulb’s edges to fuse it to the board. Electricity could then run through their liquid metal bodies and light the light bulb.
In an experiment inside an artificial stomach, the researchers applied another set of magnetic fields to make the robot approach an object, melt over it and drag it out. Finally, they shaped the robot like a Lego minifigure, then helped it escape from a cage by liquefying it and making it flow out between the bars. Once the robot puddle dribbled into a mould, it set back into its original, solid shape.
These melty robots could be used for emergency fixes in situations where human or traditional robotic hands become impractical, says Li Zhang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For example, a liquefied robot might replace a lost screw on a spacecraft by flowing into its place and then solidifying, he says. However, to use them inside living stomachs, researchers must first develop methods for precisely tracking the position of the robot at every step of the procedure to ensure the safety of the patient, says Zhang.
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