New Credit Card-Sized Soft Pumps Provide Power to Artificial Muscles

A team of researchers at the University of Bristol have developed a new flexible and lightweight ower system for soft robotics. It could one day be worn by people with disabilities and muscle degeneration sufferers, allowing them to move around more easily. Soft robots are comprised of compliant materials capable of stretching and twisting. These materials can be used to develop artificial muscles that shrink when air pumps into them. The muscles' softness makes them more ideal for assistive clothing. Normally, these pneumatic artificial muscles were powered by traditional electromagnetic pumps, which tend to be complex, noisy, and expensive. The researchers demonstrated their new flexible electro-pneumatic pump (EPP), which is soft, inexpensive, and easy to produce. In their paper, the team explained how the credit-card-sized soft pump is capable of powering pneumatic artificial muscles and pumping fluids. They also discuss the next steps required to make power clothing possible. This new pump consists of insulated electrodes that are fixed on backing materials and encased as a pouch. The pump implements the Dielectrophoretic Liquid Zipping concept, using a small droplet of dielectric liquid to intensify electrostatic force. When voltage is applied, the electrodes zip, which compresses the pouch and transfers air to actuate the device. Connecting the electro-pneumatic pump with a Bubble Artificial Muscle (BAM) creates a closed pneumatic system. Voltage control enables the EPP to actuate the BAM at varying speeds, frequencies, and stable pressures. Additionally, the EPP can be used as a robotic arm, soft pump, and an antagonistic mechanism. "The lives of thousands of people with mobility issues could be transformed with this new technology. The new pumps are an important development that will help us deliver comfortable and stylish, power-assisting clothing," said Professor Jonathan Rossiter, Head of the Soft Robotics group at Bristol Robotics Laboratory. "We are now working to make the electro-pneumatic pumps smaller and more efficient and are actively seeking partners to commercialize the technologies."The electro-pneumatic pump compared to the size of a credit card. (📷: Tim Helps / University of Bristol)

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