A team of engineers recently developed a way for creating artificial muscles throughout dielectric elastomers. They actually gave a dielectric elastomer ability to move across a wide range of distance without any need for high voltage or stiff parts. The new method surpasses the basic requirement of electromagnetic rotary motors. The applications of this method will range from soft gripping units to wearables, artificial muscles and surgical tools. The basic inspiration for this method comes from a UCLA design that has zero need for stiff parts. Quite different from other elastomer designs, this new design has no need to be stretched over a frame. The initial material is a liquid which then produces thin layer when processed under UV light.
Figure 1: Dielectric Elastomer
Elastomers are naturally sticky in nature, they don't need extra adhesive to stick with each other or electrodes. Instead of electrodes they used carbon nanotubes here just like a few other designs. In order to enhance robustness of this structure they arranged the complete material into alternate layers of nanotubes and elastomers. This practically increased the strength and force of resulting product.
A member of this team, Mishu Duduta, explains,”The voltage required to actuate dielectric elastomers is directly related to the thickness of the material, so you have to make your dielectric elastomer as thin as possible. But really thin elastomers are flimsy and can't produce force. A multilayer elastomer is much more robust and can actually provide significant force.”
The new technology counters a long time challenge that hindered growth of soft-robotics since a long long time. Soft robots are naturally slow and have tendency to rely on pneumatics or hydraulics, both of these consume lot of energy and space. In crux, the new technique offers muscle like movement in the newly engineered systems.