The scene in Terminator 2 where Robert Patrick’s T-1000 robot, made of liquid metal, easily solidifies through metal bars of a security door is likely well-known to fans of science fiction films. It’s a memorable scene because of the innovative use of CGI at the time; visual effects are a specialty of director James Cameron.
A new substance, however, has recently been developed that can recreate some of those abilities. This new “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transitional machine” has the potential to be used in a wide variety of applications, from construction repair to medical procedures, with further testing and refinement.
As reported in a new study published on Wednesday in Matter, scientists have succeeded in getting their substance to “jump” over moats, climb walls, and split into two cooperative halves to move around an object before coming back together as a whole.
A Lego man-shaped mould of the magnetoactive solid-liquid can be seen in a cheeky video with some strong references to T2 liquifying and moving through tiny jail cell bars before reforming into its original structure. And if that last bit sounds implausible, well, it is. At least for the time being.
Because of the magnetic particles, the gallium can melt and reform like the seemingly indestructible T-1000, and it also improves the robot’s mobility and its ability to move around.
These features, as described in a study published in the journal Matter that was subject to peer review, could one day see the robots used in hospitals for tasks such as the removal of potentially harmful foreign objects from a patient’s stomach or the delivery of drugs in a way that is both rapid and precise.
Instead of being hard and rigid like traditional robots, soft robots suffer from the opposite problem, being both weak and flimsy and therefore difficult to direct.
Soft and silvery metal magnetised gallium, however, appears to resolve this paradox.
Engineer and study author Chengfeng Pan remarked, “Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid states endows them with more functionality.”
An additional video included in the research demonstrated how a robot made of gallium could enter a person’s stomach, melt to encase a marble-sized object, and then reform to remove the object.
The paper also claimed that robots could be used to transport vital medications into the stomach, where they would first be transformed into a liquid before being rapidly released.
Researchers put the robot through an obstacle course that required it to traverse moats, climb walls, split in half, cooperatively move objects, and escape from a prison cell to test its mobility and shape-morphing abilities.
The researchers joked that they did not ask the robot to murder John Connor as part of any tests.
In addition, the substance may find applications in technological fields. The research showed that the material could be used as intelligent soldering robots for wireless circuit assembly in hard-to-reach places.
In another application, it could be used as a screw by first melting into a threaded screw socket before hardening. To address specific medical and engineering challenges, “we’re pushing this material system in more practical ways,” Pan explained.