The robot apocalypse is one of the alleged sci-fi scenarios that might… well, happened not any time later rather than soon enough. Speaking of bots, they are already here doing all our work for us. They are in your phone, car, grocery store, at your office while you work from home, and will soon be inside your body. Like seriously? In a recent study by Chinese scientists, they’ve been able to develop a sort of jelly-like “magnetic slime robot” capable of maneuvering through very tight spaces. This application — the creators believe — could help surgeons retrieve items trapped inside the body.
Related media: The Magnetic Slime Robot That Could Retrieve Accidentally Swallowed Objects
The Magnetic Turd
The jelly-like robot was described in a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Functional Materials as a “magnetic slime robot.” This shape-shifting magnetic slime was developed by scientists from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The blob is a mixture of neodymium magnet particles with borax (a common household detergent), and polyvinyl alcohol (a kind of resin), and together, can be operated with a magnetic field. The slime robot is capable of encircling smaller objects, is self-healing, and able to squeeze and penetrate narrow spaces. It is also a good electrical conductor which can be used for interconnecting electrodes, the creators say.
The dark-colored magnetic slime made a debut on April 1st and took to social media amid claims of being an April Fool. It’s been akin to ‘Flubber,’ the eponymous substance in the 1997 sci-fi movie, with netizens describing it as a “magnetic turd,” “amazing and a tiny bit terrifying.”
“The ultimate goal is to deploy it like a robot,” says Li Zhang, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, and co-creator of the magnetic slime, in an interview with New Scientist. “We still consider it as fundamental research — trying to understand its material properties.”
‘Flubber’ Comes To Life
In addition, Zhang said that the slime lacks autonomy at the moment, and emphasized that the slime was real scientific research and not an April Fool prank, despite the timing of its release. The slime contains special magnetic properties that make it able to manipulate — albeit travel, rotate, curve from an ‘O- and ‘C-shape’ when a magnetic field is applied to it.
The slime has “visco-elastic properties,” as professor Zhang explains:
“You can first elongate it to a very large extent so it looks like a liquid,” he explains, “then afterwards, you can roll it like an octopus’ arm to carry something. It’s very much like mixing water with [corn] starch at home. When you touch it very quickly it behaves like a solid. When you touch it gently and slowly it behaves like a liquid.”
The two properties coalesce to produce oobleck — a non-Newtonian fluid whose viscosity changes under force. Currently, the creators have no plans of testing the slime in medical settings. However, they claim that the slime could be useful in the digestive tract, for instance, retrieving a small swallowed battery (a depicted in the video above).
Robot Apocalypse Inside You. Coming Soon!
According to Zhang, the slime can be encapsulated to form some kind of inert coating just to avoid toxic electrolyte leakage. The magnetic particles themselves are toxic, according to the creators. But they were coated with a layer of silica (the main component sand) as a sort of hypothetical protective layer — although it’s not thoroughly safe.
“The safety [would] also strongly depend on how long you would keep them inside of your body,” Zhang said.
He stated that dye or pigments could be added in making the slime more colorful. Robot apocalypse: coming soon in a favorite color of yours.
Source: University of Hong Kong / New Scientist
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Fri, Apr 01, 2022.