Irish scientists create maths formula for better soft membrane tech results

The technology behind materials used in artificial muscles and ‘smart clothes’ could be significantly advanced thanks to new Irish research. 

Batman Begins cape: Irish researchers are advancing the soft membrane technology seen in the film.

The kind of soft membranes in question are likened to that seen in a sequence of the Batman Begins movie, where a huge bat cape emerges from a tiny folded piece of material.

However, beyond the world of comic-hero cinema, these dielectric membranes are used to develop artificial muscles, soft robotics, energy harvesters and smart clothes. While the materials used in such creations deploy and stiffen when put under high voltage, the breaking point of the membrane was not known.

Now however, a study co-authored by two researchers at NUI Galway’s school of mathematics, statistics and applied mathematics, provides the answer to this problem that has stumped scientists for years.

“It’s the electric voltage that allows these special membranes to expand. Until now it was not fully understood how much voltage these membranes could sustain,” said Prof Michel Destrade. “Some are a millimetre thick, but if they thin out too much when they stretch with the voltage, it can lead to a short-circuit and a catastrophic breakdown,” he said.

With hope that their mathematical formula will help advance science in this area, he and collaborator at NUIG Giusseppe Zurlo are working on experiments with engineering colleagues at China’s Xi’an Jiaotong University.

“The very near and real applications for these materials are artificial human muscles, or soft robots which can help organs function,” said Giuseppe Zurlo.

The paper outlining their solution to the problem, with two colleagues from Politecnico di Bari in Italy, was published this week in the Physical Review Letters journal.

They have worked out what they describe as a simple formula linking the physical properties of the membrane to the breakdown amount of stretch.

“The final equation is very compact and it will provide most useful safety guidelines for future experiments on these fascinating materials,” Mr Zurlo said.

As well as in China, labs at Harvard University in the United States are among those around the world developing dielectric membrane technology.


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