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Wax-coated plastic morphs between soft and stiff

Heat-controlled materials could serve as skeleton for shape-shifting robots

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5:00pm, July 18, 2014

WAX ON, WAX OFF  Coating a plastic scaffold in wax (left) makes the squishy structure stand firm. Without wax (right), or when the wax is heated, the scaffold is easily crushed. Robotic body parts made of the wax-plastic duo could let machines toggle between hard and soft.

Future robots may sport a wax coating that allows them to transform from soft and squishy to stiff and strong.

Dipping foam or plastic in molten wax creates structures whose flexibility and strength can be tuned with temperature, researchers report June 30 in Macromolecular Materials and Engineering. The study introduces a novel class of inexpensive materials that can be both floppy and firm, says mechanical engineer Robert Shepherd of Cornell University.

Researchers could one day use the materials to build remote-controlled surgical or search-and-rescue robots that can squeeze through tight spaces when heated and firmly push obstacles aside when cooled.

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