Scientists at École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a new composite thread that has a variety of stiffness properties that could be used for a range of applications, including multifunctional robots, knitted casts, drones and medical devices.
The thread is created by using a silicone tube with a metal alloy that is solid below 62° C, but melts at higher temperatures. After wrapping the tube with thin conductive wire, the tube then can be heated by injecting current into the wire. After this, the thread becomes soft, rubbery and stretchable like a silicone tube, but when it cools it becomes more than 700 times stiffer and has a rigid shape.
“The amazing flexibility of this new lightweight thread is due to its ingenious simplicity and robustness that makes it easy to manufacture and use in a wide range of applications, shapes and combinations with other technologies,” says Dario Floreano, project director at EPFL.
Scientists say the thread could be used to transform a flying drone into a robotic car, where the motors would be used as either propellers or as wheels depending on their position, which can be adjusted thanks to the threads. The thread could also be used as an electronic cast for rehabilitation of broken joints, or it could be used for safe exploration of human orifices in a modular biopsy device.
EPFL scientists are working with the composite material in order to explore even further uses in robotics, such as mimicking the functionalities of biological tissue.