Elastic fibres filled with electrodes could create robot nervous system, smart clothing

Tiny elastic fibres that incorporate electrodes and nanocomposite polymers have been developed that could imbue clothes with sensing powers or even provide artificial nerve networks for robots.

Developed by scientists at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL), the fibres can detect even the slightest pressure and strain and can withstand deformation of close to 500 per cent before recovering their initial shape.

A new method provides a fast and easy way to embed different kinds of microstructures in super-elastic fibres and can be used to produce hundreds of metres of fibre in a short amount of time.

To make their fibres, the scientists used a thermal drawing process, which is the standard process for optical-fibre manufacturing.

They started by creating a macroscopic preform with the various fibre components arranged in a carefully designed 3D pattern. They then heated the preform and stretched it out, like melted plastic, to make fibres of a few hundreds microns in diameter.

While this process stretched out the pattern of components lengthwise, it also contracted it crosswise, meaning the components’ relative positions stayed the same. The end result was a set of fibres with an extremely complicated microarchitecture and advanced properties.

With the help of a new criterion for selecting materials, they were able to identify some thermoplastic elastomers that have a high viscosity when heated.

After the fibres are drawn, they can be stretched and deformed but they always return to their original shape.

Rigid materials like nanocomposite polymers, metals and thermoplastics can be introduced into the fibres, as well as liquid metals that can be easily deformed.

“For instance, we can add three strings of electrodes at the top of the fibres and one at the bottom. Different electrodes will come into contact depending on how the pressure is applied to the fibres. This will cause the electrodes to transmit a signal, which can then be read to determine exactly what type of stress the fibre is exposed to - such as compression or shear stress, for example,” said lead researcher Fabien Sorin.

The scientists integrated their fibres into robotic fingers as artificial nerves. Whenever the fingers touch something, electrodes in the fibres transmit information about the robot’s tactile interaction with its environment.

The research team also tested adding their fibres to large-mesh clothing to detect compression and stretching. “Our technology could be used to develop a touch keyboard that’s integrated directly into clothing, for instance” Sorin said.

The researchers see many other potential applications and are confident the process lends itself well to mass production.

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