The Future of Tech is Squishy and Plant-Based

octobotThe octobot is the world's first completely soft robot. Photo by Lori Sanders.

In designing the blobby bots and furry fibers that tackle today’s health and environmental issues, researchers at Harvard and MIT are finding inspiration in unexpected places—like octopuses and otters.

1. Harvard researchers have created something called the octobot—a completely soft, tetherless robot fueled by the chemical reaction between hydrogen peroxide and platinum pulsing through its flexible little legs. Inspired by actual octopuses, the 3D-printed invention uses materials commonly found in a microfluidics lab—silicon, ink and a soft chip called a microfluidic controller—in a totally new way. The first-ever soft robot debuted in August, so the applications of this type of tech are still in their infancy, much like the cord-free, gas-powered, tentacled robot industry as a whole. But one piece of tech has already made use of this squishy science…

MIT

Photo by Ellen Roche.

2. In January, researchers at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital announced that they’d created a soft, customizable robotic sleeve that fits around the human heart and supplements functions that have been weakened by disease or heart failure. The sleeve can be fine-tuned to suit a variety of needs, and because it doesn’t come into contact with blood, there’s minimal risk of clotting or infection for patients.

MIT

Photo courtesy of Felice Frankel and Seyed Mohammad Mirvakili.

3. A lab at MIT has created a filament that can be strung together to create muscle-like fibers. The simple-to-make, affordable fiber makes a movement that’s a lot like a muscle contraction when heated, and it could be the first step toward making more realistic, flexible artificial limbs. Researchers have also considered its potential applications in robotics, as the filament responds to anything from lasers to electricity—which means, as Gizmodo pointed out last year, we might just be one step closer to the Westworld-style hosts you’ve watched on HBO.

otter fiber

4. That’s not the only smart fiber coming out of MIT. Inspired by the way sea otters stay warm, university researchers developed a thin, flexible material with millions of hairlike strands on the surface that trap air to keep the body warm. The creation would solve the issue of bulky neoprene wetsuits—which are heavy and reduce the range of motion—while still keeping swimmers comfortable in cold waters.

photo cell

Photo courtesy of Patrick Gillooly.

5. MIT has designed a self-healing solar cell that can build and repair itself using the same mechanism plants use to harness the sun’s energy, as well as repair damage caused by the sun. Scientists took to the lab to identify, simplify and imitate the molecules that do this work in plants. Eventually, engineers may be able to build solar panels that fix themselves and could potentially work indefinitely.

bomb spinach

6.Goodbye bomb-sniffing dogs, hello bomb-detecting spinach? In October, MIT engineers announced they’d embedded spinach leaves with carbon nanotubes, allowing the plant to use its natural ability to sample groundwater to sense things like pollutants and explosives. When certain chemicals are detected by the roots of the plant, the nanotubes in the leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read by an infrared camera. This can be transmitted to humans by email or via phone, keeping inspectors safely away from the danger.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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