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Research team develops polymers that react to light

Posted: 14 Nov 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:University of Pittsburgh  polymer  light  Air Force Research Laboratory 

A team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering has revealed that it may be possible to make microvehicles move and other devices change shape without using power source other than a beam of light. They are investigating polymers that 'snap' when triggered by light and can convert light energy into mechanical work that could eliminate the need for traditional machine components such as switches and power sources.

The research, was performed by M. Ravi Shankar, PhD, associate professor of industrial engineering at Pitt in collaboration with Timothy J. White, PhD, Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Matthew Smith, PhD, assistant professor of engineering at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, USA.

"I like to compare this action to that of a Venus Fly Trap," said Shankar, whose research focuses on innovative nanomaterials. "The underlying mechanism that allows the Venus Fly Trap to capture prey is slow. But because its internal structure is coupled to use elastic instability, a snapping action occurs, and this delivers the power to shut the trap quickly. A similar mechanism acts in the beak of the Hummingbird to help snap-up insects"

Focusing on this elastic instability, Shankar examined polymeric materials, prepared by researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory, which demonstrated unprecedented actuation rates and output powers. With light from a hand-held laser pointer, the polymers generate high amounts of power to convert the light into mechanical work without any onboard power source or wiring. Specific functions would be pre-programmed into the material so that the device would function once exposed to a light source and controlled by changing the character of the light.

"As we look to real-world applications, you could activate a switch simply by shining light on it," said Shankar. "For example, you could develop soft machines such as stents or other biomedical devices that can be more adaptive and easily controlled. In a more complex mechanism, we could imagine a light-driven robotic or morphing structure, or micro-vehicles that would be more compact because you eliminate the need for an on-board power system. The work potential is built into the polymer itself and is triggered with light."

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