The burgeoning field of soft robotics has a number of advantages over conventional robotics; soft robots can gently conform to fragile objects in order to handle them delicately, they pose less of a risk of injury to humans, and they can be be more affordable to fabricate. Soft robots are generally made from flexible materials like silicone, and are actuated by pumping fluid or air into bladders. But the pumps required to do that are often bulky and loud, and are always rigid. That’s why an international team of researchers have developed a new soft pump that is small, flexible, stretchable, and quiet.
This pump was created by researchers from Switzerland’s EPFL Soft Transducers Laboratory (LMTS) and Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS), and Japan’s Shibaura Institute of Technology. The pump was designed specifically for applications in soft robotics, and is far better suited to that job than traditional pumps are. It works by using a series of electrodes arrayed along a tube to give dielectric liquid an electrical charge. By applying voltage to the electrodes in sequence, the liquid is pulled along by the pulsing magnetic field inside of the pump.
One of the most obvious advantages of this pump is that it’s completely silent, because there are no moving parts at all. Even more importantly for soft robots, the pump can be fabricated to be flexible and even stretchable. Using recent advances in stretchable electronic circuits, even the electrodes themselves can stretch and flex. That means the pump can be placed directly on a soft robot without the risk of affecting its functionality. The pump is also very small, and multiple pumps can be chained together if needed. Those same properties also make it ideal for wearable devices, such as smart clothing that can cool the body.