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Will the future robots even need motors? Possibly not!

06 June 2018

Engineers created a novel actuating material which may replace bulky motors and pneumatic actuators with ones similar to mammalian skeletal muscles in the future.

Professor Alfonso Ngan and Dr. Kwan Kin-wa introduce the new actuating material powered by light. (Credit: Copyright The University of Hong Kong)

To develop micro- and biomimetic-robots, artificial muscles and medical devices, actuating materials that can reversibly change their volume under various stimuli are researched in the past thirty years to replace traditional bulky and heavy actuators including motors and pneumatic actuators.

A mechanical engineering team led by Professor Alfonso Ngan Hing-wan, Chair Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, and Kingboard Professor in Materials Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) published an article in Science Robotics on 30 May 2018 (EST) that introduces a novel actuating material - nickel hydroxide-oxyhydroxide - that can be powered by visible (Vis) light, electricity, and other stimuli. 

The material actuation can be instantaneously triggered by Vis light to produce a fast deformation and exert a force equivalent to 3,000 times of its own weight. The material cost of a typical actuator is as low as HKD 4 per cm2 and can be easily fabricated within three hours.

Among various stimuli, light-induced actuating materials are highly desirable because they enable wireless operation of robots. However, very few light driven materials have been available in the past, and their material and production costs are high, which hinder their development in actual applications such as artificial muscles for robotics and human assist device, and minimally invasive surgical and diagnostic tools.

Developing actuating materials was identified as the top of the 10 challenges in “The grand challenges of Science Robotics”. Research in actuating materials can radically change the concept of robots which are now mainly motor-driven. Therefore, materials that can be actuated by wireless stimuli including a change in temperature, humidity, magnetic fields and light is one of the main research focus in recent years. In particular, a material that can be actuated by Vis light and produces strong, quick and stable actuation has never been achieved. 

In addition to its Vis light actuation properties, this novel material system can also be actuated by electricity, enabling it to be integrated into the present well-developed robotics technology. It is also responsive to heat and humidity changes so that they might potentially be applied in autonomous machines that harness the tiny energy change in the environment. Because the major component is nickel, the material cost is low. The fabrication only involves electrodeposition which is a simple process, and the time required for the fabrication is around three hours, therefore the material can be easily scaled up and manufactured in industry.

Materials provided by The University of Hong Kong


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