A process for engineering next-generation soft materials with embedded chemical networks that mimic the behavior of neural tissue lays the foundation for soft active matter with highly distributed and tightly integrated sensing, actuation, computation, and control.
Inspiration for the process came from the sinuous motion of a swimming blue eel and the large gap between how natural systems move and the lack of such coordinated and smooth movement in artificial systems.
This work sought to answer key questions such as why there is such a void between the animate and inanimate, and if materials with similar attributes to living organisms could be created from inanimate objects using only chemicals instead of motors and electronics.
The work studied how a type of neural network present in the eel — named the Central Pattern Generator (CPG) — produces waves of chemical pulses that propagate down the eel's spine to rhythmically drive swimming muscles. To engineer a material mimicking the generator, a control device was constructed that produces the same neural activation patterns biologists have observed. A control system was created that runs on chemical power, as is done in biology, without resorting to any computer or electromechanical devices, which are the hallmarks of manmade, hard robotic technology.
The same CPG dynamics could be captured on a non-biological platform using a well-known oscillating chemical process known as the Belousov-Zhabo tinsky reaction. Fabrication techniques were developed for soft materials engineering artificial chemical networks at the nanoscale that would be capable of producing a wide variety of patterns. The resulting robust chemical networks produced distributed dynamic patterns identical to the eel's CPG.
Future work will transfer the information coded in the dynamic patterns from the chemical networks to create a targeted mechanical response within a novel chemo-mechanical gel. This could transition the research from artificial material mimicking neural tissue to artificial tissue now mimicking neuromuscular tissue.