Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have combined tissues from a sea slug with flexible 3-D printed components to build “biohybrid” robots that crawl like sea turtles on the beach.
A muscle from the slug’s mouth provides the movement, which is currently controlled by an external electrical field. However, future iterations of the device will include ganglia, bundles of neurons and nerves that normally conduct signals to the muscle as the slug feeds, as an organic controller.
In the future, swarms of biohybrid robots could be released for such tasks as locating the source of a toxic leak in a pond that would send animals fleeing, the scientists say. Or they could search the ocean floor for a black box flight data recorder, a potentially long process that may leave current robots stilled with dead batteries.
Webster worked with Roger Quinn, the Arthur P. Armington Professor of Engineering and director of Case Western Reserve’s Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory; Hillel Chiel, a biology professor who has studied the California sea slug for decades; Ozan Akkus, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the CWRU Tissue Fabrication and Mechanobiology Lab; Umut Gurkan, head of the CWRU Biomanufacturing and Microfabrication Laboratory, undergraduate researchers Emma L. Hawley and Jill M. Patel and recent master’s graduate Katherine J. Chapin
The researchers chose the sea slug because the animal is durable down to its cells, withstanding substantial changes in temperature, salinity and more as Pacific Ocean tides shift its environment between deep water and shallow pools. Compared to mammal and bird muscles, which require strictly controlled environments to operate, the slug’s are much more adaptable.
Akkus said, “When we integrate the muscle with its natural biological structure, it’s hundreds to 1,000 times better.”
With the goal of making a completely organic robot, Akkus’ lab gelled collagen from the slug’s skin and also used electrical currents to align and compact collagen threads together, to build a lightweight, flexible, yet strong scaffold.
The team is preparing to test organic versions as well as new geometries for the body, designed to produce more efficient movement.
If completely organic robots prove workable, the researchers say, a swarm released at sea or in a pond or a remote piece of land, won’t be much of a worry if they can’t be recovered. They’re likely to be inexpensive and won’t pollute the location with metals and battery chemicals but be eaten or degrade into compost.
CLEVELAND—Before Case Western Reserve University Professor Ozan Akkus applied for federal funding to build a souped-up version of a chemical analyzer, 11 fellow professors from various disciplines, as well as an art conservation group at the Cleveland Museum of Art, signed on in support, wanting to use the new device.
Akkus, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is turning a Raman microscope—one of the workhorses of chemical analysis—into FastRAM, a device that can provide images of materials in seconds to minutes instead of hours to days. The instrument would also allow researchers to analyze dynamic processes such as chemical reactions as they occur, which current technology cannot.
The new technology would reduce the time it takes to make discoveries and the cost of analysis and may provide the first look at a host of dynamic systems, yielding fundamental knowledge of how they operate and insight into how they may be modified to improve output, safety and more.
The National Science Foundation awarded him a $280,000 grant to develop a spectrometer that’s faster than current models by a factor of hundred, and in some cases thousand. The grant was supplemented by $60,000 from the Ohio Board of Regents and $60,000 from the Case School of Engineering.
CLEVELAND—A Case Western Reserve University engineer has won a $1.7 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to grow replacement rotator cuffs and other large tendon groups to help heal injured soldiers and athletes, accident victims and an aging population that wants to remain active.
Ozan Akkus, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has already devised a technique to reconstitute collagen—a building block of tendons—into tough fibers and induce adult stem cells to grow into tendons on those fibers.
“This is a concept that works on a lab bench,” Akkus said. “We will refine the concept and test the validity on an animal model.”
“Following completion of that, we may be in position for clinical applications,” he continued.
Tendons are the sinew that tie muscle to bone, enabling us to push and pull, run and jump or, in the case of the rotator cuff, throw a ball or a mundane task such as reaching up to a shelf. But the cuff is susceptible to wear and damage.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that nearly 200,000 Americans require shoulder surgery to repair damaged rotator cuffs annually. The failure rate for repairs exceeds 20 percent, with the rate being highest for the largest tears.