Top left of image shows a picture of a purplish-grey sea cucumber. Above the cucumber is the word "bio-inspiration." Arrows come from the cucumber to anthropomorphized cartoons of it saying "rigid" at the top with a cartoon sea cucumber standing straight up with spikes and the arrow captioned "soft" pointing down showing a crawling sea cucumber that looks more like a slug. To the right of the cucumber images is a set of three images stacked top to bottom. The top image is of a silver sphere with a zoomed-in atomic diagram with aligned magnetic poles next to it saying "solid state." The middle image shows arrows going up and down next to a snowflake and an artistic rendering of magnetic fields labeled "transition." The bottom image of this section shows a reddish sphere next to a zoomed-in atomic diagram where the magnetic poles are not aligned labeled "liquid state."

Phase Change Materials For Flexible And Strong Robots

Shape shifters have long been the stuff of speculative fiction, but researchers in China have developed a magnetoactive phase transitional matter (MPTM) that makes Odo slipping through an air vent that much more believable.

Soft robots can squeeze into small spaces or change shape as needed, but many of these systems aren’t as strong as their more mechanically rigid siblings. Inspired by the sea cucumber’s ability to manipulate its rigidity, this new MPTM can be inductively heated to a molten state to change shape as well as encapsulate or release materials. The neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) microparticles suspended in gallium will then return to solid form once cooled.

An image of a LEGO minifig behind bars. It moves toward the bars, melts, and is reconstituted on the other side after solidifying in a mold.

Applications in drug delivery, foreign object removal, and smart soldering (video after the break) probably have more real world impact than the LEGO minifig T1000 impersonation, despite how cool that looks. While a pick-and-place can do better soldering work on a factory line, there might be repair situations where a magnetically-controlled solder system could come in handy.

We’ve seen earlier work with liquid robots using gallium and bio-electronic hybrids also portending the squishy future of robotics.

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