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A new material takes shape – all by itself

Produce packaging could be one of the first areas where research scientists’ Robotic Matter is used.
Published Jun 24, 2020

Remember the T-1000 robot from Terminator 2? It could change form into anything at all, including a human being. The microrobots in the animated feature, Big Hero 6, offer another example of matter that can, on a given signal, change shape.

These shape-shifting machines aren’t just science fiction. At KTH three professors are working on a research project to develop a similar substance, called Robotic Matter .

Also known as robotic materials or programmable matter, Robotic Matter is a form of digitised, programmable material in microscale which joins together to form larger objects. These objects can change their material properties and shapes at once to form anything, with great precision.

Wouter van der Wijngaart , Professor at the Division of Micro and Nanosystems at KTH , says that universities around the world are working on ways to develop Robotic Matter. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed centimetre-sized cubes containing small motors. They can join together to create different shapes. The problem is that it is not possible to reduce the technology itself, van der Wijngaart says.

 “MIT’s technology does not scale down in the same way that ours does,” he says. “We will be working with a plastic material with magnetic particles embedded in it.”

The KTH team has begun its work toward future materials by experimenting with plastic film which is placed between two sheets of glass. The film is then heated and cooled, and in this way the researchers can change the shape of the plastic and construct two-dimensional figures. The heating up, and where in the material this takes place, would thus constitute the actual programming. With the help of magnetism, the functionality of the material would be determined.

Wouter van der Wijngaart

Working with plastic film is one way to approach the way robotic matter works, and when it’s time for three-dimensional figures, heating wires could be used to construct in three directions. Wouter van der Wijngaart says that this resembles what we see in human being’s bloodstream and nerves

“One of the challenges is to heat up and cool down the material quickly enough. We are looking here at how nature works,” he says. “For instance, how humans sweat and how blood can transfer heat and cold in the body.”

The human body is an excellent example when it comes to how Robotic Matter is to be created, he says. It is easy to think that the material should consist of many millions of building blocks, each equipped with a small computer that can communicate with all the others. However, van der Wijngaart says, it doesn’t actually work like that.

“The human body is made up of trillions and trillions of cells. Not every cell is smart in and of itself. The same is true for robotic matter. The dream is of course to build a Terminator , but you have to start somewhere. With something smaller. One first application might possibly be plastic packaging for grapes. But I think we can achieve a two-dimensional Terminator as soon as within a few years.”

Sustainability is an important part of Robotic Matter. So the project is also taking aim at the substantial amounts of energy needed in order to recycle plastic, which today has to be melted at 300C and reformed using pressure. In the case of grape packaging in Robotic Matter, temperatures of no more than about 70Care needed in the process .

When recycling plastic, the chains of plastic molecules are weakened. On average plastics can be recycled at most about three times. By contrast, van der Wijngaart says, “Robotic materials, in theory, can change shape as many times as one likes.”

Van der Wijngaart reports that he and KTH Professors Ulrica Edlund  and Danica Kragic-Jensfelt  have so far received funding for one year of research work. Meanwhile, they have high hopes for continued funding for at least another five years.

Peter Ardell

For further information, contact Wouter van der Wijngaart at 08 - 790 66 13/wouter@kth.se

Robotic material, in brief

* The research work on robotics materials is part of the KTH Digital Futures research initiative. In this new centre of expertise and research, researchers from KTH and other universities are engaged in the exploration and development of digital technologies that can solve major societal challenges, in Sweden and globally. KTH Digital Futures is part of the Swedish Government’s investment in Strategic Research Areas (SFO).

* Within the framework of KTH Digital Futures, a number of interdisciplinary research projects are underway which deal with everything from digital assistants in the field of elder care and the management of sensitive personal data, to smart solutions for distribution of water and the
robotic matter described above. Further information can be found here: www.kth.se/digitalfutures

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Last changed: Jun 24, 2020