Smart materials

Intelligent imitations

Sascha Rentzing, 18 Oct 14
Machines and technical devices would be more efficient if they could be designed to be smaller and lighter. Smart materials that adapt to their environment like living organisms could have applications in many fields and could help to save energy and protect the climate.

The robot at the Leibniz Institute for New Materials (INM) in Saarbrücken is extremely sensitive: by means of a paddle fitted with thousands of tiny synthetic hairs it can move objects to and from delicately and safely. It can even handle panes of glass: an INM video shows the robot carefully lifting a pane with the paddle, making a quarter-turn and then gently putting it down again. Molecular interactions between adjoining surfaces, known as van der Waals forces, cause the glass to adhere securely to the tiny hairs.

The mechanical cohesion is then released using a magnetic field. “We are imitating the technique used by the gecko, which can cling to almost any surface,” explains INM researcher Karsten Moh. The lizard’s secret lies in the small pads of dense hairs on its toes. Each hair is ten times thinner than a human one. This enables the gecko to utilise forces that otherwise operate only between individual molecules: if the molecules’ electrical charges are distributed asymmetrically, the oppositely charged molecule ends attract each other like two magnets.

This is an abridged version of the article – the full text is available in new energy issue 05/2014

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