Scientists in China and the U.S. have teamed up to make a robot that hasn’t committed any crimes — yet — but even if it did, we couldn’t do much about it, certainly not jail. That’s because it can turn itself into a liquid to pass through the bars of a cage and then reassemble itself on the other side. The researchers say they were inspired by nature — specifically by the sea cucumber’s ability to change the stiffness of its tissues. But we’re still getting some pretty strong T-1000 vibes.
According to the research published last week in the journal Matter, the robot is made from magnetoactive phase transitional matter (MPTM), which essentially means that it relies on magnetic fields to transition between solid and liquid states. This gives them all the advantages of a solid, things like mechanical strength and load bearing capacity, as well as all the flexible tricks of a liquid, shapeshifting, splitting, and even merging.
There are two primary components to these robots that allow them to work their magic. The first are microparticles made in part from neodymium and iron, both known for their strong magnetic properties. The second is a matrix of pure gallium, which has a low melting point of about 85°F (29.8°C). All that’s needed to control the robot it an alternating magnetic field for heating and the ambient air for cooling. Building a prison-breaking robot is a fun stunt, but it’s just a proof-of-concept. The practical applications the researchers have in mind are truly mind-blowing.
Turning up the heat on MPTM
The Houdini-worthy escape in the video above is definitely attention grabbing, but its just the beginning of what you can find in the paper itself (which is packed full of additional videos). The scientists envision liquid robots flowing through tight spaces and into screw holes, where they can then solidify into a screw — no screwdriver required. One can easily imagine the implications for precision manufacturing, not to mention simplifying, say, self-assembled furniture.
If that doesn’t knock your socks off, they also have a video of two robots working together to move electronic components on a circuit board. Once they get the component into the right position, they use induction heating to solder the connections. After cooling in the ambient air, a third robot shimmies over and activates a switch, powering the component, which it turns out is a light.
Perhaps most audacious of all is a video demonstrating how, if one were brave enough, you could swallow one of these robots. Once comfortably in your GI tract, it could latch onto a foreign object and guide it out of your body. Look, if that makes you uncomfortable, maybe don’t go around swallowing things that aren’t food in the first place.
By changing the gallium matrix to one of several different alloys, the melting point can be customized for different applications, making it a highly versatile technology. These scientists may not be working for Skynet from “Terminator 2″, but it sure feels like their lab is firmly planted in the world of tomorrow.