Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered how to make materials that snap and reset themselves, only relying upon energy flow from their environment. The discovery may prove useful for various industries that want to source movement sustainably, from toys to robotics, and is expected to further inform our understanding of how the natural world fuels some types of movement.
Al Crosby, a professor of polymer science and engineering in the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst, and Yongjin Kim, a graduate student in Crosby's group, along with visiting student researcher Jay Van den Berg from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, uncovered the physics during a mundane experiment that involved observing a gel strip dry. The researchers noticed that when the long, elastic gel strip lost internal liquid due to evaporation, the strip moved. Most movements were slow, but every so often, they sped up. These faster movements, called snap instabilities, continued to occur as the liquid evaporated further. Additional studies revealed that the shape of the material mattered and that the strips could reset themselves to continue their movements.
"Many plants and animals, especially small ones, use special parts that act like springs and latches to help them move really fast, much faster than animals with muscles alone," says Crosby, when explaining the study. "Plants like the Venus flytraps are good examples of this kind of movement, as are grasshoppers and trap-jaw ants in the animal world. Snap instabilities are one way that nature combines a spring and a latch and are increasingly used to create fast movements in small robots and other devices, as well as toys like rubber poppers. However, most of these snapping devices need a motor or a human hand to keep moving. With this discovery, there could be various applications that won't require batteries or motors to fuel movement."