New Soft Robotic Droplet Handler for Cleaning Hazardous Liquids

Conventional robots are made up of heavy, rigid and expensive components, which makes them poorly suited for certain tasks. On the other hand, soft robots can be lightweight, offer a soft feel, and can be produced at a fraction of the cost of their stiff cousins.

Today, a research team from Colorado State University (CSU) has created the first flexible robotic gripper capable of manipulating individual droplets of liquid. The manipulators are designed by integrating temperature-sensitive soft actuators with superomniphobic surfaces.

Powered by electric activation artificial muscle, the flexible robotic manipulator is made of inexpensive materials like nylon fibers and tape. The combination can be used to produce lightweight, inexpensive grippers capable of delicate work but 100 times stronger than human muscle for the same weight.

“A single clamp as big as my finger weighs one or two grams, including the built-in artificial muscle. And it’s inexpensive – just a dollar or two,” said Jiefeng Sun, postdoctoral fellow at the Mechanical Engineering Department’s Adaptive Robotics Laboratory and co-first author of the paper.

The flexible robotic grippers are treated with a new superomniphobic coating that makes droplet manipulator possible. The coating resists wetting by almost all types of liquids, even in dynamic situations where the mating surfaces tilt or move. The superomniphobic coating allows the gentle robotic manipulator to interact with the droplets without breaking their surface tension. So that it can grab, transport and release individual droplets as if they were flexible solids.

In many liquid spill scenarios, human cleanup can be hazardous due to toxicity, risk of contagion, or other hazards in the environment. These droplet manipulators are inexpensive enough to be disposable, yet capable enough to do precise, lossless liquid cleaning work that no other robot has ever done.

Researchers imagine that their biofluid handlers will not only reduce manual operations and minimize exposure to infectious agents, but will also pave the way for the development of low-cost, simple, and portable robotic systems, which can enable point-of-care operations, especially in developing countries.

Journal reference:

  1. Wei Wang, Jiefeng Sun, Sravanthi Vallabhuneni, Benjamin Pawlowski, Hamed Vahabi, Kimberly Nellenbach, Ashley C. Brown, Frank Scholle, Jianguo Zhao, and Arun K. Kota. Handling on demand, remotely and without loss of biofluid droplets. Materials Horizons (2022). DO I: 10.1039/D2MH00695B

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