A phase-changing material could be used in low-cost robots to allow them to switch between hard and soft states. The material is made from a flexible open-cell foam coated in wax that can achieve significant ranges of stiffness, strength, and volume [Abstract].
The material — developed by Anette Hosoi, a professor of mechanical engineering and applied mathematics at MIT, and her former graduate student Nadia Cheng, alongside researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and Stony Brook University — could be used to build deformable surgical robots. The robots could move through the body to reach a particular point without damaging any of the organs or vessels along the way.
Robots built from the material, which is described in a new paper in the journal Macromolecular Materials and Engineering, could also be used in search-and-rescue operations to squeeze through rubble looking for survivors, Hosoi says.
To build a material capable of shifting between squishy and rigid states, the researchers coated a foam structure in wax. They chose foam because it can be squeezed into a small fraction of its normal size, but once released will bounce back to its original shape.
The wax coating, meanwhile, can change from a hard outer shell to a soft, pliable surface with moderate heating. This could be done by running a wire along each of the coated foam struts and then applying a current to heat up and melt the surrounding wax. Turning off the current again would allow the material to cool down and return to its rigid state.
In addition to switching the material to its soft state, heating the wax in this way would also repair any damage sustained, Hosoi says. "This material is self-healing," she says. "So if you push it too far and fracture the coating, you can heat it and then cool it, and the structure returns to its original configuration."