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Researchers develop a highly versatile material to be used in several fields

NUS researchers discover a combination of metals that create a material half the weight of paper and yet malleable and ductile. A breakthrough in robot-making, it has many desirable qualities that make it a first choice in prosthesis and search-and-rescue robots.






SINGAPORE | 25 NOVEMBER 2019


Termed “origami robots”, these robots are the newest generation of its kind. They encompass the latest features and ideas and are currently being put through tests to verify their compatibility for various fields. Researchers are currently looking to use these robots in drug delivery in humans, search-and-rescue missions in disaster environments and human-like robotic limbs.


These origami robots are usually made from soft materials such as paper, plastic and rubber so that they can fulfill their purposes, but these are not the most practical of materials. While flexible, these materials do not encompass sensors and electrical components. Thus, additional materials will have to put on them, which makes them larger and more inconvenient. This makes these soft materials undesirable for use in several fields.


However, a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) recently made a ground-breaking discovery regarding the material that can be used to make these origami robots—they combined metals such as platinum with burnt paper (amorphous carbon, also known as ash) to create a new material. This new material is able to conduct electricity, generate heat, resist fire, detect strains and is


capable of wireless communications. It is also half the weight of paper, stretchable and foldable. It carries the properties of soft materials, but, at the same time, has much more functions and capabilities.


This new material comprises properties that make it a good choice for the production of flexible and light prosthetic limbs—it has the ability to detect strains as soon as they occur and can give feedback to the user on how much he/she is flexing. This, in turn, helps the user to control his/her actions better through the receiving of immediate information. It does not require add-on materials as well, which makes it an expedient option as it does not add undesired weight to the prosthetic.


This metal-based material is at least one-third the weight of the materials originally used to make origami robots, allowing origami robots made using this material to work at higher speeds whilst utilising 30 percent less energy than those made using the original materials. This makes it more power efficient as compared to robots made before this discovery.


The newly developed material’s fire-resistant properties as well as its geothermal heating capabilities on-demand also prove to be helpful in allowing them to be used in crude environments. For example, it is able to tolerate temperatures at about 800̊C for up to 5 minutes without burning and melting and is able to heat up in ice-cold environments. These are advantageous for them to be utilised in harsh environments, at both high and low temperatures.


With all these advantageous characteristics put in place, these materials are the top choice for developing light and flexible robots that can be used for search-and-rescue in dangerous places. The provision of real-time feedback and communication are also key features that make it suitable for such functions.


“We experimented with different electrically conductive materials to finally derive a unique combination that achieves optimal strain sensing and wireless communication abilities. Our invention therefore expands the library of unconventional materials for the fabrication of advanced robots,” said Mr Yang Haitao, a doctoral student at the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the first author of the study.

Following this discovery, team leader Assistant Professor Chen Po-Yen from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering and his team are aiming to increase the functions of this newly developed metal-based material.


They plan to include electrochemically active materials in the manufacturing process so as to create energy storage devices. This will allow the material itself to become its own battery, thus paving the way for self-powered robots. They will also experiment with other metals such as copper to reduce the manufacturing costs of the material.




The research paper was published in August 2019 on Science Robotics.

This article was contributed by Ling Yi, an editorial intern at World Scientific Publishing Co. and a contributing writer for Asia-Pacific Biotech News. She is from Nanyang Girls' High School, has keen interest in learning more about life sciences and exploring literature, in both English and Chinese. She also enjoys studying different languages such as Japanese and Korean, and has a passion for dancing and reading.