A shape-shifting robot manages to escape from a prison

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A team of researchers from the Shenzhen campus of Sun Yat-sen University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Zhejiang University have created a new phase change material, called magnetoactive phase transition matter (MPTM), by incorporating neodymium-magnetic iron-boron microparticles into gallium, a metal with a very low melting point (29.8 degrees Celsius).

This phase change property, which can be controlled remotely with a magnetic field, is due to metal gallium. This new material could help scientists develop soft robots and flexible that can move through narrow passages and be externally guided.

Terminator, inspiration for this experiment.iStock

How does it work?

In one video, a human-shaped robot is liquefied to ooze through a grate, after which it is extracted and remolded to its original form. The researchers embedded the metal with magnetic particles to direct the movements of the metal with magnets. The scene they recreate in the experiment is impossible not to remind you of the actor’s Robert Patrick in his role as T-1000, the shape-shifting robot, and main antagonist in the movie Terminator 2, liquefying through the metal bars.

“The magnetic particles here have two functions. One is that they make the material respond to an alternating magnetic field, so it can, through induction, heat the material and cause the phase change. But the magnetic particles also give mobility to robots and the ability to move in response to the magnetic field,” explains Carmel Majidi, mechanical engineer from Carnegie Mellon University in Canada and leader of the work.

The robot changes state as needed. Among other benefits, a robot that molds its shape could be used to offer rescue services in places with poor access.

This is how the robot changes shapematter

“Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid states gives them more functionality”said the scientists in their study published in the journal matter.

Phase change materials have been made before, but they needed external heat sources or electrical currents to transform. The new team material, MPTMhas an extremely fluid liquid phase compared to other phase-change materials, whose “liquid” phases are considerably more viscous. The team turned to gallium, a metal that melts at about 30 degrees Celsius, slightly above room temperature. Instead of connecting a heater to a piece of metal to change its state, researchers expose it to a rapidly changing magnetic field to liquefy it. The alternating magnetic field generates electricity within the gallium, causing it to heat up and melt. The material resolidifies when allowed to cool to room temperature.

The innovation can also function as intelligent soldering robots for wireless circuit assembly and repair, and as a universal mechanical “screw” for assembling parts in hard-to-reach spaces.

“Future work should further explore how these robots could be used within a biomedical context. What we are showing are just one-off demonstrations, proofs of concept, but much more study will be required to delve into how it could actually be used for drug delivery or foreign object removal,” Majidi said.


Q. Wang et al. Magnetoactive liquid-solid phase transitional matter. matter. Published online January 25, 2023. doi: 10.1016/j.matt.2022.12.003

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