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TU/e researchers develop soft robotic 'hand' for future surgical use

Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology have designed a pioneering soft robotic gripper made from liquid crystals and graphene that could pave the way for new surgical robots capable of delicate procedures.



The novel work, published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, addresses a key challenge in bringing soft, deformable robots into sensitive environments like the human body. While current surgical robots tend to be rigid, a soft robotic "hand" could potentially access hard-to-reach areas with greater dexterity.

"For a surgeon, many operations are complex and delicate, requiring precise movements that can be difficult even for skilled human hands," said PhD candidate Laura van Hazendonk, who led the research. "Soft robots may offer a new helping hand for clamping, suturing and manipulating tiny instruments during procedures."

The team's innovative gripper design features four controllable "fingers" made of liquid crystal networks (LCNs) that can reversibly deform thanks to graphene heating elements embedded within. Applying a low electrical current heats the graphene tracks, causing the liquid crystal molecules to shift between ordered and disordered states, forcing the LCN fingers to bend.

"When the current is switched off, the heat dissipates and the gripper returns to its original shape," explained van Hazendonk. "At safe voltages under 15V, the soft fingers can gently grasp and lift objects weighing 70-100 milligrams - a tiny but potentially useful range for precise surgical maneuvers."

The project builds on Nobel Prize-winning work around liquid crystals by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes in 1991 and graphene by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2010. Van Hazendonk and her colleagues were drawn to these smart materials for their unique properties suited to soft robotics actuation.

While just a first proof-of-concept, the researchers see vast potential for liquid crystal/graphene soft grippers and robots in biomedical applications, including minimally invasive robotic surgeries in the future. Their next goal is developing methods to 3D print complete soft robots from liquid crystal materials.

"I love how this blends state-of-the-art materials with a tangible application that could improve surgical technologies," said van Hazendonk. "This actuator could form the basis for an entirely new suite of soft, bio-inspired robots."

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