Technology 3 min read

Miniature Stretchable Pump for Next-Generation of Soft Robots

Image Credit: Vito Cacucciolo | EPFL

Image Credit: Vito Cacucciolo | EPFL

Scientists have developed the first stretchable pump to enhance the movement of soft robots.

Soft robotics is a subfield that focuses on the construction of robots from highly compliant materials like those found in living organisms. That means soft robots are designed to handle fragile objects, interact safely with humans, and adapt to their environment.

With this goal in mind, engineers often use silicone, rubber or other stretchable polymers for the machine’s exoskeleton rehabilitation. They then equip it with actuators – artificial muscles – to enable movement.

There’s just one problem. The current actuators are rigid noisy pumps that force fluids into the moving parts of the robots. Also, since these bulky pumps are connected to tubes, the robots actually have limited autonomy.

The researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and colleagues at the Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo decided to address this issue. Together, they developed the first completely soft pump – even the electrodes are flexible – for autonomous machines.

Unlike the current pumps, the new one is lighter, quieter, and consumes less power, which it gets from a rechargeable battery. In other words, soft robots no longer have to be tethered to function.

The researchers described how the soft pumps work in their published paper in Nature.

Stretchable Pump to Untether Soft Robots

The physical mechanism that circulates the cooling liquid in the current supercomputers inspired the soft and stretchable pump.

In their paper, the researchers wrote about how they fitted the pumps with a tube-shaped channel, with printed rows of electrodes inside. Then, they filled the pump with a dielectric liquid.

So, when they apply voltage, electrons jump from the electrodes to the liquid, charging the molecules at the same time. As a result, the molecules become attracted to other electrodes and pull the rest of the fluid through the tube with them.

Lead author of the study and post-doc at the LMTS, Vito Cacucciolo said:

“We can speed up the flow by adjusting the electric field.”

Now that the team has successfully implanted the pump in a robotic finger, they’re considering other applications. For example, the researchers are now partnering with Koichi Suzumori‘s laboratory in Japan, to develop fluid-driven artificial muscles and flexible exoskeletons.

But, the application extends beyond actuating soft robots.

Scientists can also embed the stretchable pumps in fabrics to circulate liquids in thin, flexible tubes. The result is an article of smart clothing that can actively heat or cool specific regions of the body.

“It works a little like your home heating and cooling system,” says Cacucciolo.

Read More: Soft Robot Powered by Muscle-like Actuators

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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