Scientists in China have built a shapeshifting robot capable of alternating between liquid and solid states.
Their creation has many practical applications, especially in areas that a traditional robot could not easily access, said the researchers responsible for the unique robot.
While the idea of a liquid robot sounds like it was plucked from the pages of a science fiction novel, the team was inspired by very real and unique marine animals: sea cucumbers.
The strange-looking creatures are echinoderms, making them distant relatives of starfish and urchins.
Their skin is soft and leathery but, when threatened, some species can turn themselves stiff and rigid in a fraction of a second.
Just how sea cucumbers morphed in and out of their hardened state has stumped the scientific community for decades.
It’s widely accepted that the unique animals arrange the sprawling network of collagen fibres under their skin into a lattice-like scaffolding that acts as a sort of subdermal chain mail, protecting them from potential harm.
The Chinese scientists, led by Chengfan Pan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, created their robot from a chemical element called gallium, embedded with tiny magnetic particles.
Gallium has several unique characteristics, one of which is its low melting point of 29.7 degrees Celsius.
The magnetically charged objects within the gallium structure allow the scientists to direct the robot remotely but also change between liquid and solid phases, according to the team’s recently published research paper.
By manipulating the magnetic field around the robot, the charged particles produce a small electrical charge that causes the temperature of the gallium to rise, melting the ‘solid’ device.
Ambient cooling causes the liquid gallium to reform back into its original state. According to the team, their creation is called a ‘magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transitional machine’.
In a series of tests, performed a few feats: the robot successfully escaped a mock ‘prison’ by melting through its cell bars, climbed a wall, jumped twenty times higher than its length, supported 30 times its weight without failing, and even soldered a circuit board, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.
The research unit believes their creation is practically suited to a limitless amount of roles, considering its flexibility.
There are several obstacles that still need navigating, however. The human body has a naturally higher temperature than gallium and would be in its liquid state constantly if used in medicine for surgeries or targeted drug delivery.
The team hypothesised adding more materials within the gallium structure that would raise its melting point to a more desirable level.
A mechanical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, Carmel Majidi, agreed with the Chinese researchers saying that scientists should further explore robot’s biomedical applications.