One of the problems facing the development of more realistic/natural acting robots is the ability to create artificial muscles that mimic all aspects of the real thing. Research currently being carried out at Nankai University has just taken a big step closer to achieving that.
If you want to create a robotic equivalent of a living thing such as a fish or a worm, it’s very difficult to do that in terms of matching the size, range of movement, and weight. But if a lightweight, flexible material can be produced that acts like a natural muscle, it can replace the typically more bulky components robots rely on today for movement.
Researchers Yongsheng Chen and Yi Huang have managed to create such a material thanks to the availability of graphene. They created a graphene paper from graphene flakes that were heated and fused together. That formed a strong base material which could be coated in the polymer poldiacetylene. Combined, you have a very strong, yet flexible material that can be cut to any shape and size.
The major benefit of this so-called electromechanical actuator material, is the way in which it reacts to an electric charge. Apply an alternating current and the material flicks back and forth at a rate of up to 200 times per second. And it does so while generating the same amount of stress as a natural muscle (160 megapascals per gram).
The level of responsiveness, coupled with the stress generated, make the material a good candidate for producing natural movement in robots. We could, for example, eventually see robot fingers that move and react as ours do. But for now the experiments are focusing on simpler tasks, such as getting a worm to wriggle, and creating a miniature helicopter (the size of a bee) that uses the graphene paper to spin the blades.
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