Huddling penguins make waves in the Antarctic winter

Standing in the center of a crowded bus on your way to class, you might think: “why don’t these people just move? It’s hot and I can’t breathe!” Male penguins huddling to keep their eggs warm in the Antarctic winter have the opposite problem – no penguin wants to be at the cold edge of the huddle. A penguin in the huddle wants to stay in the warm center, since the outside temperature can reach -45 oC. However, penguins on the edge of the huddle are trying to push through the crowd to reach the center. Through the independent motion of each penguin, the huddle stays tight enough for the center to remain warm but loose enough to keep moving.

Baromorphs: Shape Shifting by Inflating

Conventional robots typically move by moving rigid pieces relative to one another — think of a robotic hand where rigid bars rotate at joints. In other words, conventional robots have a small number of “degrees of freedom” — the angle of bending of the joint of a robot hand would be one degree of freedom, for example. Soft robots, on the other hand, have many degrees of freedom: they can bend and deform into lots of different configurations. )Because of this, they often display continuum-like behaviour, similar to what is seen in the movement of natural organisms such as worms and octopuses. These robots offer great promise in many fields, from soft instruments for minimally invasive surgery to shape changing airfoils for increased flight control. One of the particularly difficult challenges in soft robotics is to design systems that are flat at rest but can rapidly transform to an arbitrary three dimensional shape when activated. Recently, Emmanuel Siéfert and co-workers developed baromorphs— thin, flexible sheets which can be air inflated (“pneumatically activated”) into a pre-programmed target shape.

PARNET 2019: Granular and Particulate Networks

A granular material, such as sand, coffee beans, or balls in ball pit, is a collection of particles that interact with each other and dissipate energy. These materials can act like solids, flow like liquids, or suddenly transition between the two phases – for example, in a landslide, the soil stops holding its shape and flows. The Granular and Particulate Networks Workshop, PARNET19, brought together the physicists, engineers, and mathematicians who study these materials in a series of lectures and discussions.

When you pull on a drop, how does it pull back?

Physicists like to ignore things. In some cases, we may neglect gravity or assume that the temperature is zero degrees Kelvin — colder than any known substance in the universe. And friction is almost comically absent in most models, despite the fact that a world without it would be utterly uninhabitable (this is nicely illustrated in cartoon form here: https://xkcd.com/669/).

Synthetic blood to power vascularized robots

The circulatory or vascular system of animals is a complex organ that performs multiple functions simultaneously. Take the human circulatory system for example: it transports oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, regulates temperature, helps in fighting diseases, etc. However, robots don’t usually function the same way. Despite the vast improvements in robot design, they still cannot do much multi-tasking. Part of the problem is that robots are typically built from rigid parts that only do one thing. A battery usually does not play any other role aside from providing energy, and moving parts are typically controlled by independent actuators. These single-purpose components (such as batteries) are typically less efficient than their biologic counterparts, and add to the weight of the robots (limiting their performance, maneuverability, speed, and autonomy).

Soft engines: Leidenfrost effect in elastic solids

Have you ever wondered why a water droplet rolls around on a hot pan instead of evaporating instantly? The part of the droplet touching the pan does indeed evaporate. The resulting vapor forms a thin insulating layer that enables the drop to hover over the pan for seconds, even minutes. This is known as the Leidenfrost effect. Because they also produce vapor when heated, sublimable solids (solids that skip over the liquid phase and directly produce vapor) also exhibit the Leidenfrost effect. This effect has been studied extensively for both liquids and sublimable solids.

The Future of Shape-Memory Polymers: Just Add Water and Glycerol

Have you ever used a heat-shrink tubing at home to seal an exposed wire? As it’s shown in Video 1, you would place the tubing around your wire, apply heat, and voilà! The tubing shrinks and tightly wraps itself onto the exposed wire, and you don’t have to worry about an electric shock anymore. This type of material that changes its shape upon increased temperature is called a shape-memory polymer. Since its commercial development in 1962, scientists have found this type of material so useful that its popularity rose, especially in the biomedical and aerospace fields. However, it comes with a few drawbacks: applying the desired temperature uniformly can be tricky and the shape change induced by the heat can be quite slow. In addition, changing the temperature isn’t ideal for biological applications where the environment surrounding the material is sensitive to heat, such as in tissues and living cells. In today’s post, I’ll introduce you to a different type of shape-memory material that “remembers” its temporary shape when subjected to a magnetic field, instead of heat.

Small structures, Big facilities

Science Village Scandinavia

I am writing this as I embark on a journey from Copenhagen to Chicago for a 24-hour experiment. Luckily, I am going to be in the city longer than I will be flying, but only just. Traveling over 4,000 miles may seem like a long way to go for an experiment, and it is. I perform small-angle scattering experiments for a living though, and sometimes this is just what needs to be done. My previous post on Softbites was all about the fundamentals of X-ray and neutron scattering, but I didn’t give an indication of what an experiment is actually like. This post focuses on the practicalities. What are the experimental facilities like? What do you have to do to access them?

The dance of swarming flies

Imagine yourself as a small fly called a midge (shown in Figure 1a). You used to live in a lake as a small larva with no concerns in life except swimming, eating, and growing. One day, you hid underwater and formed a cocoon around your body as it developed wings, legs, and antennae. A few days later, you swam to the surface and burst out of your cocoon as an adult fly — a male. As a new adult male, you find the clock ticking – you have only a few days to find a mate before you die.

Mighty-Morphin’ Magnetic Materials

If we could shrink a submarine down to the microscopic scale, could we pilot it into the human body to fight infection and perform surgery? Despite suggestions from futuristic sci-fi such as “Fantastic Voyage”, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, “The Magic School Bus”, “Power Rangers”, and “Rick and Morty”, we cannot survive such shrinking and our vessel would be without a pilot. But it may still be possible to “shrink” down some of our technology and control it remotely as we will see from researchers at MIT in this week’s paper.