Science fiction is often several steps ahead of the real world when it comes to conjuring up new technologies. Back in 1991, ground breaking visual effects helped bring the shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 robot to life in James Cameron’s Terminator 2, but 32 years later, shape-shifting robots now exist in real like thanks to ground breaking research in phase-shifting materials.
Is this robot a perfect recreation of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 character, which could take the form of any object or even person it sampled by physical contact? No, not even close. Created by a team from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, led by engineer Chengfeng Pan, this robot also isn’t designed to time travel to prevent important historical figures from ever being born. It’s instead designed as an engineering and medical tool, for completing tasks or solving problems in places where it’s hard to get tools.
There are currently two approaches to building robots. There are strong and agile bots made from rigid materials like metal or carbon fiber, and there are bots made from softer, malleable materials that sacrifice strength for the ability to squeeze and wiggle their way into more places. This robot takes a best of both worlds approach, and was inspired by sea cucumbers, whose squishy bodies can easily squeeze through narrow places but then go rigid in mere seconds using enzymes that cause protein fibers to bind together.
Instead of relying on proteins, as detailed in a new paper published in the scientific journal Matter, this robot is made from a newly-developed phase-shifting material the researchers call “magnetoactive liquid-solid phase transitional matter,” or MPTM for short. Instead of requiring an external source of heat to shape shift and morph, a magnetic field causes the robot to generate its own heat through induction. Not needing the thousands of components that make a complicated robot like ATLAS function, these bots are made of just two ingredients: magnetic neodymium-iron-boron microparticles embedded in gallium—a metal that melts at 29.8 °C, or roughly the temperature of a hot Summer’s day.
Although the researchers showed off this robot’s capabilities by demoing a tiny metal Lego figure escaping a miniature prison by melting into a liquid before being (manually) remoulded again—a fun nod to one of Terminator 2's most memorable scenes—the robot definitely has more practical uses. In another video shared by the researchers, a small solid block of the MPTM makes it way into a model of a human stomach before melting into a liquid, flowing around a foreign object to capture it, solidifying again, and then making its way back out.
All of the robot’s power is provided by an external magnetic field, and that allows it to move around with an impressive level of precision. The researchers have successfully made the robot jump over moats, climb walls, and “split in half to cooperatively move other objects around before coalescing back together.” And in addition to medical applications, the researchers have demonstrated industrial uses too, such as the robot crawling into a machine and replacing a missing screw by simply “melting into the threaded screw socket” before solidifying again.
It’s a far cry from the liquid metal robots that Hollywood visual effects artists have delivered, but it’s fascinating how quickly researchers have already caught up to what was once just wild speculation about the future of robots. What else was James Cameron right about?
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