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Folding Plants Inspire Next Generation of Shape Shifting Robots

University of Michigan researchers study mimosa plant for new robot technologySustainable tech is becoming a  green job-creating engine for people, and it’s creating new green jobs for robots, too.  If the latest research out of the University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania is any indicator, some of those new robots may be able to bend, twist, and reform in ways that mimic the movement of shape-shifting plants.

Plants in Motion

Anyone with a window garden has observed phototropism, which refers to the way that many plants appear to move as they grow toward a light source. It’s a slow-motion process that is facilitated by a chemical that causes cells on the “dark” side of the plant to elongate. The research team is investigating another kind of movement that only occurs in certain plants. Called nastic movement, it differs from phototropism in several ways. It is a rapid movement that can be observed with the naked eye in real time, its direction is not determined by the source of the stimulus that touches it off, and it is generally based on a hydraulic action.

Nastic Movement and Regeneration

If you’ve been following green tech for a while, you might be familiar with another recent green biomimicry breakthrough out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which the researchers found a way to reproduce the ability of plants to break down and regenerate their light-capturing molecules. The end result would be a self-repairing solar cell that is practically immune to heat damage. However, the U Michigan research is coming from another angle. Rather than investigating re-organization at the cellular level, they’re looking it from an engineering perspective, without involving new or regenerated growth.

Nastic Movement, Mimosa and Robots

The Mimosa is an ideal jumping off point for studying nastic movement because of the spectacular way that its leaves fold up (video in link) in response to a stimulus,  like a Busby Berkeley sequence in miniature. The research team hopes that their studies will lead to the development of adaptive materials that can completely change their organization and then change back again. As applied to sustainable tech, it could enable the development of new robots that have the flexibility to perform difficult tasks in data collection, repair, or monitoring. It could also mean new options for aerodynamics and collapsible design in architecture, vehicles and equipment.

Image: Mimosa by DDFic on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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