Chemical Inchworms: The Latest in Robotic Technology?

Japanese scientists create an autonomous material -- a polymer that walks by itself

Imagine robots that operate without electronic components. Well, this week scientists at a robotics lab in Japan revealed a creation that could bring the scenario a step closer to reality. The team has created what looks to be a Technicolor inchworm made of motile gel that not only crawls by itself, but changes color depending on the environment it's in. And its creators say that this creeping, self-propelled goop might one day find its way into robots.

The team at the Shuji Hashimoto Laboratory Department of Applied Physics at Waseda University in Tokyo made the gel by combining polymers that change size depending on the specific chemical environment they're in. When the polymers change size, they lose and gain electrons. This process is based on an oscillating chemical reaction called the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) reaction. The overall effect is that the gel moves on its own, without the help of electronic stimulation.

According to Shingo Maeda, who led the team, oscillating chemical reactions, like BZ, are what could help replace the electrical parts in robots. Maeda told New Scientist that these chemical reactions can be "self organized," creating their own controls and mechanical signals from within. And it's these qualities that could be used to make certain robotic components in the future.

For the moment Maeda's gel worm can only move along a notched surface. But next up, the crew at the physics lab plans to create a version of the gel worm that can move along a flat surface, in a peristaltic motion similar to that of an earthworm.