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A Gel-Based Material That Can Do the Electric Slide

It’s the invention of engineers at Rutgers University.

Slenderman, or "smart" gel?
Slenderman, or “smart” gel? Daehoon Han/Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Engineers at Rutgers University have started 3D-printing a gel material that could one day give us softer, arguably less frightening robots. And to show off their so-called “smart gel,” they made it dance. It’s not just cute—the reactive synthetic might have far-reaching applications for the future of automation.

As explained in a study published last week in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces*, the university team, based out of New Brunswick, New Jersey, have created the printable “smart gel” to move in response to electric stimuli. Made of a special polymer that reacts to electric impulses, the gel can be formed into a variety of shapes to perform tasks such as grabbing objects or moving them around. In the video below, you can see how the engineers managed to make a one-inch figure do a sort of walking-dance underwater by forcing it to contort and then return to its original shape.

The possibilities for the material are seemingly only limited to the imagination of the engineers. Since the team’s gel mimics other hydrogels, which Rutgers Today points out can be found everywhere from the human body to Jell-O, it could eventually be used to make artificial organs or octopus-like soft bots. “We are planning to find some useful application in the biomedical field. Drug delivery, artificial muscle,” says one of the study’s authors, Howon Lee, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The resulting video is a lot of fun, though Lee says the smart gel won’t likely be used to make any further movers and shakers. “Our interest is not in creating dancing figures, we are just demonstrating how we can accurately control motion. We’re not particularly interested in creating anything dancing,” he says. Still, this smart gel really seems to know how to groove (with a little stimulation of course).

*Correction: This post previously did not include the full name of the cited journal. This has been corrected.