A new study describes a novel approach to designing soft robotics and metamaterials using computer algorithms.
Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Technical University of Denmark said they can now build multi-material structures without relying on human intuition or trial-and-error to produce highly efficient actuators and energy absorbers that mimic designs that are found in nature.
Led by Illinois civil and environmental engineering professor Shelly Zhang, the research uses optimization theory and an algorithm-based design process called topology optimization. Also known as digital synthesis, the design process builds compound structures that can accurately achieve complex prescribed mechanical responses.
“The complex mechanical reactions required in soft robotics and metamaterials require the use of multiple materials — but building structures like these can be challenging,” Zhang said in a statement. “There are so many materials to choose from, and determining the optimal combination of materials for a specific function provides an overwhelming amount of data for a researcher to process.”
Zhang’s team focused on designing macro-scale structures with the prescribed properties of rapid stiffening, large-scale buckling deformation, multi-phase stability and long-term force plateaus.
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According to the team, the new digital synthesis process generated structures with optimal geometric characteristics, composed of the optimal materials for the prescribed functions.
Researchers ended up with model devices made of two different polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) elastomers with a base geometry that “remarkably” resembled a frog’s legs, they said — or a family of three frogs, each with different geometries, using the two PDMS elastomers in different shapes. arrangements that work very much like biological muscles and bones.
“We have designed reusable and fully recoverable energy dissipators that are tailored to the current demand for sustainable appliances that are good for the environment,” Zhang added. “These are not single use devices. We designed them with purely elastic materials, which allows us to reuse them many times.”
The team said its digital synthesis technique will expand the range of programmable materials that can handle complex, previously impossible mechanical reactions, particularly in the fields of soft robotics and biomedical consulting.
The research was supported by the US National Science Foundation and the Villum Foundation. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences†