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Researchers Build Soft Robotic “Hand” Using Graphene and Liquid Crystals

A robot hand.
Credit: ThisisEngineering / Unsplash.
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In our future hospitals, soft robots might be used as surgical robots. But before that can happen, researchers need to figure out how to precisely control and move these deformable robots. Added to that, many current soft robots contain metals, which means that their use in water-rich environments – like the human body – is rather limited. TU/e researchers led by PhD candidate Laura van Hazendonk, Zafeiris Khalil (as part of his master’s research), Michael Debije, and Heiner Friedrich have designed a soft robotic hand or gripper made from graphene and liquid crystals (both organic materials). This opens the possibilities for such a device to be potentially and safely used in surgeries in the future.

Robots have an enormous influence on our world. For instance, in industry, robots build automobiles and televisions. In hospitals, robots – such as the da Vinci robotic surgical system – assist surgeons and allows for minimally invasive operations. And some of us even have robots to do our vacuum cleaning at home.

“Society has become dependent on robots, and we’re coming up with new ways to use them,” says Laura van Hazendonk, PhD researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. “But in devising new ways to use them, we need to think about using different types of materials to make them.”

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Thinking soft

The different materials that Van Hazendonk is referring to are fluids, gels, and elastic materials – which are all easily deformable. “Typically, robots are made from metals, which are rigid and hard. But in certain applications, robots made from hard and rigid materials limit the performance of the robot,” says Van Hazendonk. “The solution is to think soft.”

In soft robotics, the goal is to make robots from materials like fluids or gels that can deform in certain situations and then can act like robots made from traditional rigid and hard materials.

One area where soft robots look set to have a major impact is in surgical procedures. Van Hazendonk: “For a surgeon, many operations can be complex and delicate, and therefore require precise dexterity on the part of the surgeon. Sometimes this just isn’t possible, and they turn to robots. But rigid robots may not be able to access some areas with ease either. That’s where soft robots can come to the fore, and our goal was to offer the potential new helping hand for use in clamping and suturing used devices in surgeries, for example.”

Tangible and useful

For Van Hazendonk – who combines her PhD research with being a member of the provincial parliament of Noord-Brabant (Provinciale Staten) – this research has been eye-opening for her.

“I love how this work combines a useful and tangible application. The gripper device is based on fundamental technologies, but the actuator itself could form the basis for a suite of robots for use in biomedical or surgical applications in the future.”

Fully printed robot

And, in the future, Van Hazendonk and her colleagues have some interesting plans. “We want to make a fully printed robot by figuring out a way to 3D-print the liquid-crystal layer. For our gripper, we made the layer by casting materials in a mould. Other researchers in the group of Michael Debije have shown that liquid crystals can be printed. For this gripper, we have printed the graphene layer, so it would be cool to have a fully printed device.”

Reference: Van Hazendonk LS, Khalil ZJ, Van Grondelle W, et al. Hot fingers: Individually addressable graphene-heater actuated liquid crystal grippers. ACS Appl Mater Interfaces. 2024:acsami.4c06130. doi: 10.1021/acsami.4c06130

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