Development of soft robotics could hinge on clusters of levitating particles

Scientists have used sound waves to levitate particles and observe clustering, an advance that could be applied in soft robotics or help reveal planet formation.

levitating particles
A cluster of levitated particles in a 'chevron' arrangement (Pic: Bath University)

The research team, from Bath University and the University of Chicago, used sound waves to levitate polyethylene particles of around 1mm in diameter to see how they interact with each other in 2D in groups of six or seven.

When there are five particles, or fewer, the particles cluster in only one configuration.  When there are at least six particles, there are several different shapes they could assemble into.

By levitating the particles and using high-speed cameras the researchers were able to capture these various configurations. They found that groups of six particles can form parallelogram, chevron, and triangle shapes. Adding one more particle meant that particles clustered together in one of four shapes, each resembling a flower, a turtle, a tree, or a boat.

By changing the sound-wave frequency, the team realised it could manipulate the clusters and influence the emergent shape. They found that rearranging the shapes often depends on one particle acting as a “hinge” and swinging around the others to reconfigure, which could be useful in a range of potential applications.

Dr Anton Souslov from the Bath University’s Department of Physics said: “Six particles is the minimum needed to change between different shapes, which is where things get interesting.

“We’ve found that by changing the ultrasound frequency, we can make the particle clusters move about and rearrange. This opens up new possibilities for manipulating objects to form complex structures. Maybe these hinges that we observe could be used to develop new products and tools in the fields of wearable technology or soft robotics – where scientists and engineers use soft, manipulable materials to create robots with more flexibility and adaptability than those made from rigid materials.

“Understanding how to control ultrasonic forces is really important – ultrasound is already used throughout industry and in household products from making tiny droplets in humidifiers to cleaning gunk off hard surfaces. For us scientists, defying gravity to levitate dust also has this more fundamental interest of developing Earth-based experiments to understand how bodies in space like planets and moons start to form when space dust begins to agglomerate together.”

The study is published in Nature Physics. The research team now intends to look at how acoustic levitation can bring together larger numbers of particles to assemble more complex structures. The research was funded by the US National Science Foundation.