Feb. 14, 2013 at 4:47 PM ET
Small explosions produced by a mixture of methane and oxygen gases send a soft, silicone robot jumping as much as a foot in the air, according to researchers.
The leaping breakthrough could one day allow search-and -escue robots to clear obstacles such earthquake debris when looking for survivors. Stringing several explosions together could even send robots scurrying down the street.
Mechanical engineer Robert Shepherd and colleagues started with a 3-D printed, three-legged mold that they filled with soft, stretchy and flexible silicone. Tubes connected to the legs deliver a precise mixture of methane and oxygen, which is ignited with sparks delivered by high-voltage wires. (Check it out in the video below.)
The duration of the explosion is short enough that the silicon is able to absorb the energy produced, not rip apart.
The current design is described in the journal Angewandte Chemie. Next up for the researchers is to untether the robot from the tubes and wires that deliver the gases and spark, creating an internal combustion engine to power running robots.
Shepherd led the research effort while serving as a postdoctoral researcher in the Whitesides Research Group at Harvard University. He is now an assistant professor at Cornell University.