Tiny silver flakes can improve conductivity in soft robots

Soft robotics have long been one of the more exciting categories among emerging technologies. Of course, as with most new tech, the field has some drawbacks over more traditional models. While they improve flexibility and complains over their more rigid counterparts, robots made of soft materials have often had an issue delivering electrical connectivity. In many cases, water and air-filled bladders are used to helped facilitate movement.

New research out of Carnegie Mellon University points to a method that could help increase conductivity in soft materials like hydrogels, without compromising the compliance at the core of the material’s appeal.

Recently highlighted in a science journal, the method essentially adds micrometer-sized silver flakes into the mix through a method similar to screen printing. When the material is partially dehydrated, the flakes begin forming connections that can be used to deliver a charge. The team describes the flakes as akin to, “a second layer of nervous tissue over your skin.”

“With its high electrical conductivity and high compliance or ‘squishiness,’ this new composite can have many applications in bioelectronics and beyond,” mechanical engineer professor Carmel Majidi said in a release tied to the news. “Examples include a sticker for the brain that has sensors for signal processing, a wearable energy generation device to power electronics, and stretchable displays.”

There are a ton of potential uses for soft robotics, but medical remains one of the most compelling. Treatment of motor disabilities and muscular disorders are among those highlighted by the team, including assistance for stroke patients and people suffering from Parkinson’s-related tremor.

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