Cornell University researchers have gained inspiration from the humble popcorn to create simple, inexpensive, kernel-powered robotic systems.
A corn kernel can expand more than 10 times in size, changes its viscosity by a factor of 10 and transitions from regular to highly irregular granules with surprising force.
This led doctoral student Steven Ceron and assistant professor Kirstin H. Petersen to study a popcorn’s unique qualities in powering inexpensive robotic devices that grip, expand or change rigidity.
According to the researchers, the Cornell study is the first to consider powering robots with popcorn, which is inexpensive, readily available, biodegradable and of course, edible.
Since kernels can expand rapidly, exerting force and motion when heated, they could potentially power miniature jumping robots.
The team contends that the mix of hard, unpopped granules and lighter popped corn could replace fluids in soft robots without the need for costly and heavy air pumps or compressors.
The researchers constructed three simple robotic actuators to test their popcorn approach: They first used 36 kernels of popcorn heated with nichrome wire in a jamming actuator to stiffen a flexible silicone beam.
For an elastomer actuator, they constructed a three-fingered soft gripper, whose silicone fingers were stuffed with popcorn heated by nichrome wire. When the kernels popped, the expansion exerted pressure against the outer walls of the fingers, causing them to curl.
For an origami actuator, they folded recycled Newman’s Own organic popcorn bags into origami bellows folds, filled them with kernels and microwaved them. The expansion of the kernels was strong enough to support the weight of a nine-pound kettlebell.
Image credits and content: Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab/Cornell University