Building More Human-Like Robots

Silicone Gels are being developed to create skin and muscle for Robots, mimicking the function of Human Skin. Engineers are revolutionizing the appearance and function of Robots.


Silicone gels are being developed to create skin and muscle for robots.

Mimicking the function of human skin, engineers are revolutionizing the appearance and function of robots.

Take a look.

We're taking monomers, which are single molecules, and making these huge molecules.

We're reacting them together to make these huge molecules.

That's really what polymer chemistry is about is making these huge molecules which that enables to make really interesting materials.

So I design our materials to be electroactive, so if you think of something that's, like, a muscle, I think about my hand moving, and I can move my hand, so I use our soft materials to make devices where you can flip a switch, apply a voltage, apply a certain electric field to this material, and it will change shape.

It'll actuate.

It can move and do work.

The silicone gel sitting in this UNC Chapel Hill lab is flexible and not affected by extreme temperatures.

It could revolutionize robotics.

Engineers have been trying to design some way to get robots skin and muscle for a long time.

It's the biggest challenge to overcome before building robots that look and move more like living things.

It's easy to see why robot skin is important.

What's his problem?

Nothing, he got shot up.

The challenge for scientists is that robot skin has to be soft and flexible, but it also must be strong when it's stretched.

It has to perform mechanically, a lot like living tissue, and this gel does that.

The softness comes entirely by architecture.

There are no solvent, no water inside.

The team in Dr. Sergei Sheiko's chemistry lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created the gel.

And this silicone doesn't have any single drop of water.

This material, if you leave it on the table, and come, let's say, in 100 years, it would not change its mechanical properties.

It would basically remain fully invariant, and this material is very elastic.

This, for example, has kind of intermediate stiffness.

It is soft and flexible, and when it is stretched, it becomes pretty strong.

It performs a lot like living tissue.

Think skin and muscle.

The goal was, how to make materials as soft as gels but without water, and this is how we come up with an idea to make polymer molecules as a brush-like architecture.

Basically it says it looks a little bit like a bottle brush, and what we have here again we have this polymer chain, but this polymer chain has a lot of side chains, so there's bristles that come out of the same polymer, so this all chemically identical material.

The secret lies in polymer chemistry.

Researchers discovered that manipulating the molecular structure controls the mechanical properties of the gel.

It's the architecture of how the silicon molecules are arranged, not the chemical composition, that's most important.

If you make these bristles longer, this material will become softer.

If you increase distance between these bristles, material will become stiffer.

And important by doing this we'd only change chemical composition.

Call it the Home Depot approach -- same material, different architecture.

For example, if you want to build a house, everybody go to Home Depot and buy the same lumber, but the houses are different, and what matters is architecture, how you connect those pieces of lumber.

The silicone gel has been in development since 2001, and the creation is drawing a lot of attention because the material mimics living tissue.

It is soft and flexible but also strong and durable, and it can withstand wide temperature swings.

It's strong.

Well, this particular material is strong.

Again, we'd have a bunch of materials.

That means the gel could be customized to create different human tissues by simply changing the molecular structure of the gel.

If you're giving out a piece of tissue, any tissue, we can give you a piece of silicone which will completely mimic mechanical properties of tissue.

And this material, but see, it's very difficult to handle this, but this material has a property of brain tissue.

So this side is fundamental properties, but with all this we wanted to make something practical, something that would change our way of living, and it made us want to make materials, so there is a big step between molecules and materials, and once you make materials, you start thinking about implications.

Basically what we design is not just, let's say, one particular type of molecule, type of materials.

We do all of the new material design platform.