By Amber Nodes
Scientists recently created a robot designed to melt and reform, according to a new study published in Matter. The study describes that the technology, known as magnetoactive phase transitional matter (MPTM), may be used as a capsule to deliver drugs or extract foreign objects in the body.
The robot is shown in a video included in the study inside a cage. The robot then melts, slithers through the bars and reforms on the other side in a mold similar to a Lego figure. The robot is made out of a mixture of magnetic materials and gallium, a metal with a low melting point, according to the study.
Science writes that, when exposed to a magnetic field, the gallium begins to melt because of the magnetic materials gaining heat. The magnetic field can then be used to steer the melted robot through the cage bars.
Miniature machines, like the melting robot from the study, have shown promising results in many fields, including drug delivery and microelectronics, in the past.
“We demonstrate the unique capabilities of MPTMs by showing their dynamic shape reconfigurability by realizing smart soldering machines and universal screws for smart assembly,” the study states.
The study credits some of the idea to their bioinspiration: sea cucumbers.
Science News reports that previous studies had used solid and liquid magnetic metals, but this study comes after the authors took inspiration from the sea cucumber, which can become soft or stiff quickly. They found that liquid metals are often too weak to grab larger objects, and solid ones had difficulty with movement in smaller areas. The sea cucumber sparked their idea to create a robot that can be both solid and liquid at the same time.
Mechanical engineer and co-author of the study, Carmel Majidi, told Science News that “the challenge for us as engineers is to mimic that in the soft materials systems.”
USA Today writes that this robot is stronger and able to carry many times its own weight, unlike the previous liquid magnetic robots which were weaker.
One possible application of the liquid robot includes removing a foreign body from a model of a human stomach. The robot wraps around the object once it is metal enough to form around it, then it can exit the stomach while carrying the object, according to the study.
In practice, however, the robot would melt in the human body and not be able to reform since the melting point of gallium is lower than the temperature of the human body. The study offers that other metals would have to be added to increase the melting point for practical use.
Nonetheless, the study mentions other potential uses for the robot. The study states that the robot is able to reach areas that are otherwise hard to access, like organs and cavities inside the body. It can also accomplish jobs including targeted delivery, aiding in medical diagnosis and healing ulcers.