Hello, Terminator: Liquid Metal Robots

By Lily Warner

Science fiction is, well, fiction. It is rare to find any realistic ideas in the genre.

However, Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues created, through some technological wizardry, a liquid metal robot. The potential applications of such a robot are numerous. The robot could turn into liquid, go into a stomach, surround an invasive object, and then pull it out without the need for surgery. It could help with highly specific jobs, such as connecting circuits in small circuit boards, or in much more general applications, such as tightening a screw in a hard to reach place. Or, alternatively, make the ultimate jail-breaking robot, just for the hell of it.

Along with their article on how exactly this robot works, the scientists dropped a video of the robot, trapped behind bars, transforming itself from a miniature lego man, into a puddle, and back into the same min-lego man on the other side of the bars. 

This isn’t the first liquid metal robot ever made, a sort of metal sludge that could move around has been created previously, but this is the first one that can phase-change (change between solid and liquid.) As such, it manages to get the best of both worlds- as a solid, it is capable of supporting more than its weight and can be more rigid and stable, and as a liquid it can fit through spaces smaller than its diameter.  

The robot also has the advantage of being powered entirely by magnets, meaning that it doesn’t have any clunky motors or delicate parts. Instead, magnetic Neodymium-Iron-Boron microparticles are inserted into the liquid Gallium, allowing the entire thing to move in a strong enough magnetic field. When the Gallium needs to heat up and melt, the magnets are put in a strong enough magnetic field to make them vibrate, increasing the heat of the Gallium and melting it. Cooling it down is similar, the magnetic microparticles are frozen in the Gallium, sucking energy from the metal and cooling it down enough to return to a solid state.

It’s not all upsides though. For such a phase-change to occur, the metal making up the robot has to have a very low melting temperature. Gallium, the metal used in the robot, melts at a little over room temperature (85.58 Fahrenheit) and is currently unusable for medical purposes (Body Temp is 98.5 Fahrenheit.) The robot is also entirely useless outside of a lab at the moment, as the magnetic fields necessary to move, reshape, and force a phase-change in the robot are far from commonplace.

Still, this prototype represents an explosion in the field of robotics, and promises a bevy of potential uses down the line, once it’s been refined and released for commercial use.

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