European Innovation Council (EIC) – Pathfinder program

When we imagine a humanoid robot or a bionic prosthetic device, we probably think of a machine composed of hard metal. Yet soft robotic devices with soft artificial muscles offer the futuristic possibility to create machines that can mimic how biological systems mechanically interact with the physical world. Unfortunately, none of the currently available artificial muscles combines the softness, the mechanical resistance, the adaptability and the temporal responsiveness of biological muscles.

INTEGRATE is a multidisciplinary program that aims at filling this gap by developing soft and water-based artificial muscles alimented by metabolic energy.

The technology enabling these artificial muscles would rely on nanocomposite materials containing stimuli-responsive polymers, colloidal particles, and a high fraction of water. A change in the solubility of the polymer with a stimulus such as light would control the water content in the material and thereby produce large volumetric variations. The presence of aligned colloidal particles would make the nanocomposite strong and capable of expanding in a single direction like biological muscles. Directional expansion is very important but difficult to achieve with classic polymer-based actuators. Finally, a modular design and 3D printability would ensure large-scale processability.

Unlike electric and pneumatic actuators that require relatively large amounts of energy to function, the INTEGRATE directional osmotic actuation principle will afford low power consumption. To power these artificial muscles, INTEGRATE would develop an artificial electric organ, capable of converting metabolic energy into electricity. The cells in our body take advantage of ion concentration gradients to store and convert energy. INTEGRATE’s artificial organs would produce electric power from these salt concentration gradients mimicking the processes that take place when strongly electric fish fire an electric shock.

INTEGRATE’s final goal is to combine soft artificial muscles and artificial electric organs to build next generation soft robots and prosthetic devices that are mechanically active but do not need to be recharged.

The INTEGRATE project brings together partners from:

Project Manager: Dr. Alessandro Ianiro – Adolphe Merkle Institute – University of Fribourg (Switzerland)

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