Title: Programmable Morphing Hydrogels for Soft Actuators and Robots: From Structure Designs to Active Functions
Abstract: Nature provides abundant inspiration and elegant paradigms for the development of smart materials that can actuate, morph, and move on demand. One remarkable capacity of living organisms is to adapt their shapes or positions in response to stimuli. Programmed deformations or movements in plant organs are mainly driven by water absorption/dehydration of cells, while versatile motions of mollusks are based on contraction/extension of muscles. Understanding the general principles of these morphing and motion behaviors can give rise to disruptive technologies for soft robotics, flexible electronics, biomedical devices, etc. As one kind of intelligent material, hydrogels with high similarity to soft biotissues and diverse responses to external stimuli are an ideal candidate to construct soft actuators and robots.
The objective of this Account is to give an overview of the fundamental principles for controllable deformations and motions of hydrogels, with a focus on the structure designs and responsive functions of the corresponding soft actuators and robots. This field has been rapidly developed in recent years with a growing understanding of working principles in natural organisms and a substantial revolution of manufacturing technologies to devise bioinspired hydrogel systems with desired structures. Diverse morphing hydrogels and soft actuators/robots have been developed on the basis of several pioneering works, ranging from bending and folding deformations of bilayer hydrogels to self-shaping of non-Euclidean hydrogel surfaces, and from thermoactuated bilayer gel “hands” to electrodriven polyelectrolyte gel “worms”. These morphing hydrogels have demonstrated active functions and versatile applications in biomedical and engineering fields.
In this Account, we discuss recent progress in morphing hydrogels and highlight the design principles and relevant applications. First, we introduce the fundamentals of basic deformation modes, together with generic structure features, actuation strategies, and morphing mechanisms. The advantages of in-plane gradient structures are highlighted for programmable deformations by harnessing the out-of-plane buckling with bistability nature to obtain sophisticated three-dimensional configurations. Next, we give an overview of soft actuators and robots based on morphing hydrogels and focus on the working principles of the active systems with different structure designs. We discuss the advancements of hydrogel-based soft robots capable of swift locomotion with different gaits and emphasize the significances of structure control and dynamic actuation. Then we summarize versatile applications of hydrogel-based actuators and robots in biomedicines, cargo delivery, soft electronics, information encryption, and so forth. Some hydrogel robots with a built-in feedback loop and self-sensing system exhibit collaborative functions and advanced intelligence that are informative for the design of next-generation hydrogel machines. Finally, concluding remarks are given to discuss future opportunities and remaining challenges in this field. For example, miniature hydrogel-based actuators/robots with therapeutic or diagnostic functions are highly desired for biomedical applications. The morphing mechanisms summarized in this Account should be applicable to other responsive materials. We hope that this Account will inspire more scientists to be involved in this emerging area and make contributions to reveal novel working principles, design multifunctional soft machines, and explore applications in diverse fields.