Artificial muscles could one day help robots lift massive objects

A team of researchers has created a new artificial muscle that could help robots lift far beyond their own body weight.

Researchers from Columbia University have created a new type of artificial muscle that could allow robots to lift things up to 1000 times their own weight, a study in Nature Communications reports.

The team created the new technology with a 3D printing technique. The rubber-like material — which is heated by a small electric current — not only lifts like real muscle, but it is able to expand up to nine times its normal size as well. That gives it a lot of flexibility other such substances do not have.

During the study, the team found that the muscle has a strain density — the amount of energy stored in each gram of a stretched elastic body — 15 times greater than natural muscle.

“We’ve been making great strides toward making robot minds, but robot bodies are still primitive,” said study co-author Hod Lipson, a professor at Columbia University, according to Telegraph UK. “This is a big piece of the puzzle and, like biology, the new actuator can be shaped and reshaped a thousand ways. We’ve overcome one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots.”

The new muscles are important because, not only could they be used to make better, stronger robots, they could also lead to more effective surgical devices and help out any field where careful manipulation is important. Lifting is the main application, but the soft material could go far beyond that.

“Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today,” said lead author Aslan Miriyev, a researcher at Columbia University, in a statement. “It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”

The team hopes to expand on the new study by furthering the muscle’s development. They also plan to use better materials, which will help accelerate the muscle’s response time and also increase its shelf life.

Glowing plants could be a future alternative to electrical lights

Researchers have developed glowing plants they hope could one day replace outdoor lighting.

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have used the enzyme that gives fireflies their telltale glow to create plants that glow in the dark, according to new research in Nano Letters.

The scientists developed the unique plants as a part of a plan that could one day lead to future energy savings. However, there is a long way before that point. Though the team tested the process on many species, they can only currently get it to work on arugula, kale, spinach, and watercress. Even so, they hope further study will one day allow them to use it on trees or other large plants in order to create a new source of outdoor light.

“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in,” said study co-author Michael Strano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to Tech Crunch. “The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself.”

Cities are responsible for roughly 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Glow-in-the dark plants could lower than use and give regions other ways to light the area after nightfall. However, that goal, while reasonable, is a long way off. The team in the study can get plants to glow for roughly three-and-a-half hours, but the light they create is a mere one-thousandth of the light required to read by. In order to improve on the process, they will need to figure out how to better concentrate the enzymes used in the process and improve how such enzymes get released.

This is not the first time scientists have attempted to use these enzymes to light up plants, but it is more efficient than past methods. Not only can the team get plants to light up, they also can use a luciferase inhibitor to turn them back off. This enables them much more control over the process.

“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant,” added Strano, in a statement. “Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”

Liquid metal could help lead to faster electronics

Researchers have found a technique that creates extremely thin metal for use in electronics.

A team of researchers from RMIT University have uncovered a new technique to make atomically thin flakes of different materials, a process that could lead to faster, more efficient electronics.

In this method, certain metals are dissolved in liquid metal. Then, the resulting super-thin oxide layer is peeled off and can be used for various purposes. While it has not been extensively tested yet, the technique is predicted to work on roughly one-third of the periodic table.

As a proof of concept, scientists have used the method to create hafnium oxide with a thickness of just three atoms. That is roughly five to ten times thinner than hafnium oxide layers produced with other techniques. To get that thinness, researchers worked with the material for 18 long months.

“Here we found an extraordinary, yet very simple method to create atomically thin flakes of materials that don’t naturally exist as layered structures,” said study co-author Dr Torben Daeneke, a researcher at RMIT’s School of Engineering, according to Gizmodo Australia.

To do this, scientists use non-toxic alloys of gallium — a metal similar to aluminum — as a reaction medium to cover the surface of the liquid metal with atomically thin oxide layers of the added metal rather than the naturally occurring gallium oxide. Then, they exfoliate the oxide layer by touching the liquid metal with a smooth surface. Not only that but, as gallium alloy is liquid at room temperature, the process can be done safely at ambient conditions.

The new research is important because it could help scientists create semiconducting and dielectric components. Both of those are key for a lot of current technology. By making such components extremely thin, the team may be able to create stronger, more energy efficient electronics. The products could have applications in devices like batteries as well.

“The most important outcome of our work is that we introduce liquid metals as a reaction solvent which opens the door to a whole new type of chemistry,” added Daeneke, according to Yahoo News.

The recent findings are outlined in the journal Science.