Can a robot pick up an egg or a baby cactus without damaging either? If it is a conventional ‘hard’ robot then the answer is almost certainly ‘no’. But if it is a ‘soft’ robot then the answer is definitely ‘yes’. They can pick ripe tomatoes from the plant, too. And play the piano with a light touch.
These are all examples used by Professor George Whitesides to illustrate the capability of soft robots during a lecture that I attended last week. The occasion was a scientific discussion meeting on Bio-inspiration of New Technologies which was held to celebrate 350 years to publishing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. While I was in London listening live to Prof Whitesides and the other eight speakers, other people were listening via video links to Bangalore, India and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Professor Whitesides’ ingenious robots have ‘fingers’ built from the same soft rubber that is used in implants. They are constructed with a solid layer on one face that is curled around the object being picked up by the inflation of compartments on the reverse face. The inflation of the compartments on the reverse face cause the face to lengthen and the ‘finger’ bends to accommodate the change in length. Careful design of the inflated compartments allows the fingers to conform to the shape being picked up and the use of microfluidics ensures it is not damaged.
Professor Whiteside identified star fish as the source of inspiration for the design of his soft robots. I don’t feel that this short piece has done justice to his work. If, nevertheless, you feel inspired to work for him then there’s probably a queue and since he is professor at Harvard it is almost certainly a long one. His research group has also spun out a company, Soft Robotics Inc. so you could buy some soft robots and explore their capabilities…
Track of the Brownian motion of a 50 nanometre diameter particle in a fluid.
Nanoparticles are being used in a myriad of applications including sunscreen creams, sports equipment and even to study the stickiness of snot! By definition, nanoparticles should have one dimension less than 100 nanometres, which is one thousandth of the thickness of a human hair. Some nanoparticles are toxic to humans and so scientists are studying the interaction of nanoparticles with human cells. However, a spherical nanoparticle is smaller than the wavelength length of visible light and so is invisible in a conventional optical microscope used by biologists. We can view nanoparticles using a scanning electron microscope but the electron beam damages living cells so this is not a good solution. An alternative is to adjust an optical microscope so that the nanoparticles produce caustics [see post entitled ‘Caustics’ on October 15th, 2014] many times the size of the particle. These ‘adjustments’ involve closing an aperture to produce a pin-hole source of illumination and introducing a filter that only allows through a narrow band of light wavelengths. An optical microscope adjusted in this way is called a ‘nanoscope’ and with the addition of a small oscillator on the microscope objective lens can be used to track nanoparticles using the technique described in last week’s post entitled ‘Holes in liquid‘.
The smallest particles that we have managed to observe using this technique were gold particles of diameter 3 nanometres , or about 1o atoms in diameter dispersed in a liquid.
Image of 3nm diameter gold particle in a conventional optical microscope (top right), in a nanoscope (bottom right) and composite images in the z-direction of the caustic formed in the nanoscope (left).
‘Scientists use gold nanoparticles to study the stickiness of snot’ by Rachel Feldman in the Washington Post on October 9th, 2014.
J.-M. Gineste, P. Macko, E.A. Patterson, & M.P. Whelan, Three-dimensional automated nanoparticle tracking using Mie scattering in an optical microscope, Journal of Microscopy, Vol. 243, Pt 2 2011, pp. 172–178
Patterson, E.A., & Whelan, M.P., Optical signatures of small nanoparticles in a conventional microscope, Small, 4(10): 1703-1706, 2008.