Researchers create metallic material to make flexible robots lighter

Researchers at the National University of Singapore have created a new metallic material that can make origami robots a lot lighter. These are soft, flexible robots that can be used for everything, such as search and rescue missions.

The researchers report that they have combined metals such as platinum with ash or burnt paper. The result was a metal-based material with enhanced capabilities, while retaining the foldability and lightness of traditional paper and plastic. The new material is half as heavy as paper, which, according to the scientists, also makes it more economical, so that robots can do their work for longer on a battery life.

The material is produced using a new process, which the researchers describe as graphene oxide-enabled templating synthesis. Cellulose paper is first immersed in a solution of graphene oxide, after which it is placed in a solution consisting of metallic material such as platinum. Then the material is burned in the gas argon at 800 degrees Celsius, and then in air at 500 degrees Celsius. The end result is a thin layer of bendable and foldable metal 0.09 mm thick that consists of seventy percent platinum and thirty percent ash. Other metals such as gold and silver can also be used for this.

The fabricated material can act as a mechanically stable, soft and conductive backbone that can give robots sensing and communication capabilities, without the need for external electronics, the scientists say. The material can serve as its own wireless antenna, allowing communication without separate communication modules. Incidentally, the material can also heat up, where necessary, by applying voltage to it.

The latter can be useful, for example, to prevent ice formation in rescue robots that have to operate in cold conditions. In addition, the material is fire resistant and can withstand temperatures of up to about 800 degrees Celsius for a duration of up to five minutes. In addition to origami robots, which are soft, foldable and can fold into all kinds of shapes, the material can also be used for prosthetic limbs that, according to the researchers, can be up to 60 percent lighter compared to conventional versions.

In the next step in this research, the researchers want to see if they can add more functions to the metallic backbone, such as incorporating electrochemically active materials so that the material is its own battery. This could lead to robots that self-power. In addition, the scientists are experimenting with other metals, such as copper, to reduce production costs.

The researchers have published about their finding in the scientific journal Science Robotics, under the title Multifunctional metallic backbones for origami robotics with strain sensing and wireless communication capabilities.