The low-cost jelly-like materials can sense strain, temperature and humidity and can also partially repair themselves at room temperature.
“Incorporating soft sensors into robotics allows us to get a lot more information from them, like how strain on our muscles allows our brains to get information about the state of our bodies,” said lead researcher David Hardman from the University of Cambridge.
The team developed the new material with robotic hands and arms in mind. These materials can detect when they are damaged, take the necessary steps to temporarily heal themselves and then resume work – all without the need for human interaction.
“We’ve been working with self-healing materials for several years, but now we’re looking into faster and cheaper ways to make self-healing robots,” said co-author Dr Thomas George-Thuruthel.
Earlier versions of the self-healing robots needed to be heated in order to heal, but the Cambridge researchers are now developing materials that can heal at room temperature, which would make them more useful for real-world applications.
“We started with a stretchy, gelatine-based material which is cheap, biodegradable and biocompatible and carried out different tests on how to incorporate sensors into the material by adding in lots of conductive components,” said Hardman.
The researchers found that printing sensors containing sodium chloride – salt – instead of carbon ink resulted in a material with the properties they were looking for. Since salt is soluble in the water-filled hydrogel, it provides a uniform channel for ionic conduction – the movement of ions.
When measuring the electrical resistance of the printed materials, the researchers found that changes in strain resulted in a highly linear response, which they could use to calculate the deformations of the material.
Adding salt also enabled sensing of stretches of more than three times the sensor’s original length, so that the material can be incorporated into flexible and stretchable robotic devices.
The researchers believe the new materials will be cheap to produce and easy to make, either by 3D printing or casting. They are preferable to many existing alternatives since they show long-term strength and stability without drying out, and they are made entirely from widely available, food-safe, materials, they added.
“It’s a really good sensor considering how cheap and easy it is to make,” said George-Thuruthel. “We could make a whole robot out of gelatine and print the sensors wherever we need them.”
The self-healing hydrogels bond well with a range of different materials, meaning they can easily be incorporated with other types of robotics. Although this material is a proof-of-concept, if developed further, it could be incorporated into artificial skins and custom-made wearable and biodegradable sensors.