Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Flexing fingers for micro-robotics: Berkeley Lab scientists create a powerful, microscale actuator

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley, have developed an elegant and powerful new microscale actuator that can flex like a tiny beckoning finger.

Based on an oxide material that expands and contracts dramatically in response to a small temperature variation, the actuators are smaller than the width of a human hair and are promising for microfluidics, drug delivery, and artificial muscles.

"We believe our microactuator is more efficient and powerful than any current microscale actuation technology, including human muscle cells," says Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley scientist Junqiao Wu. "What's more, it uses this very interesting material—vanadium dioxide—and tells us more about the fundamental materials science of phase transitions."

Wu is corresponding author of a paper appearing in Nano Letters this month that reports these findings, titled "Giant-Amplitude, High-Work Density Microactuators with Phase Transition Activated Nanolayer Bimorphs." As often happens in science, Wu and his colleagues arrived at the microactuator idea by accident, while studying a different problem.

Vanadium dioxide is a textbook example of a strongly correlated material, meaning the behavior of each electron is inextricably tied to its neighboring electrons. The resulting exotic electronic behaviors have made vanadium dioxide an object of scientific scrutiny for decades, much of it focused on an unusual pair of phase transitions.

When heated past 67 degrees Celsius, vanadium dioxide transforms from an insulator to a metal, accompanied by a structural phase transition that shrinks the material in one dimension while expanding in the other two. For decades, researchers have debated whether one of these phase transitions drives the other or if they are separate phenomena that coincidentally occur at the same temperature.

Wu shed light on this question in earlier work published in Physical Review Letters, in which he and his colleagues isolated the two phase transitions in single-crystal nanowires of vanadium dioxide and demonstrated that they are separable and can be driven independently. The team ran into difficulty with the experiments, however, when the nanowires broke away from their electrode contacts during the structural phase transition.

"At the transition, a 100-micron long wire shrinks by about 1 micron, which can easily break the contact," says Wu, who has a dual appointment as a professor in UC Berkeley's department of Materials Sciences and Engineering. "So we started to ask the question: this is bad, but can we make a good thing out of it? And actuation is the natural application."

To take advantage of the shrinkage, the researchers fabricated a free-standing strip of vanadium dioxide with a chromium metal layer on top. When the strip is heated via a small electrical current or a flash of laser light, the vanadium dioxide contracts and the whole strip bends like a finger.

"The displacement of our microactuator is huge," says Wu, "tens of microns for an actuator length on the same order of magnitude—much bigger than you can get with a piezoelectric device—and simultaneously with very large force. I am very optimistic that this technology will become competitive to piezoelectric technology, and may even replace it."

Piezoelectric actuators are the industry-standard for mechanical actuation on micro scales, but they're complicated to grow, need large voltages for small displacements, and typically involve toxic materials such as lead. "But our device is very simple, the material is non-toxic, and the displacement is much bigger at a much lower driving voltage," says Wu. "You can see it move with an optical microscope! And it works equally well in water, making it suitable for biological and microfluidic applications."

The researchers envision using the microactuators as tiny pumps for drug delivery or as mechanical muscles in micro-scale robots. In those applications, the actuator's exceptionally high work density—the power it can deliver per unit volume—offers a great advantage. Ounce for ounce, the vanadium-dioxide actuators deliver a force three orders of magnitude greater than human muscle. Wu and his colleagues are already partnering with the Berkeley Sensing and Actuation Center to integrate their actuators into devices for applications such as radiation-detection robots for hazardous environments.

The team's next goal is to create a torsion actuator, which is a much more challenging prospect. Wu explains: "Torsion actuators typically involve a complicated design of gears, shafts and/or belts, and so miniaturization is a challenge. But here we see that with just a layer of thin-film we could also make a very simple torsional actuator."

The Nano Letters paper was coauthored by Kai Liu, Chun Cheng, Zhenting Cheng, Kevin Wang, and Ramamoorthy Ramesh. Wu's earlier work on separating phase transitions in vanadium dioxide appears in Physical Review Letters, titled "Decoupling of Structural and Electronic Phase Transitions in VO2," and is coauthored by Zhensheng Tao, Tzong-Ru T. Han, Subhendra D. Mahanti, Phillip M. Duxbury, Fei Yuan, and Chong-Yu Ruan, and Kevin Wang.

For a video of this work:

"Giant-Amplitude, High-Work Density Microactuators with Phase Transition Activated Nanolayer Bimorphs"

"Decoupling of Structural and Electronic Phase Transitions in VO2"
This research was supported in part by the DOE Office of Science; theory and synthesis research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world's most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab's scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. For more, visit

DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit the Office of Science website at .

More information about Junqiao Wu's research can be found at

Alison Hatt | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Donuts, math, and superdense teleportation of quantum information
29.05.2015 | University of Illinois College of Engineering

nachricht Physicists precisely measure interaction between atoms and carbon surfaces
29.05.2015 | University of Washington

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Lasers are the key to mastering challenges in lightweight construction

Many joining and cutting processes are possible only with lasers. New technologies make it possible to manufacture metal components with hollow structures that are significantly lighter and yet just as stable as solid components. In addition, lasers can be used to combine various lightweight construction materials and steels with each other. The Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen is presenting a range of such solutions at the LASER World of Photonics trade fair from June 22 to 25, 2015 in Munich, Germany, (Hall A3, Stand 121).

Lightweight construction materials are popular: aluminum is used in the bodywork of cars, for example, and aircraft fuselages already consist in large part of...

Im Focus: Solid-state photonics goes extreme ultraviolet

Using ultrashort laser pulses, scientists in Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have demonstrated the emission of extreme ultraviolet radiation from thin dielectric films and have investigated the underlying mechanisms.

In 1961, only shortly after the invention of the first laser, scientists exposed silicon dioxide crystals (also known as quartz) to an intense ruby laser to...

Im Focus: Advance in regenerative medicine

The only professorship in Germany to date, one master's programme, one laboratory with worldwide unique equipment and the corresponding research results: The University of Würzburg is leading in the field of biofabrication.

Paul Dalton is presently the only professor of biofabrication in Germany. About a year ago, the Australian researcher relocated to the Würzburg department for...

Im Focus: Basel Physicists Develop Efficient Method of Signal Transmission from Nanocomponents

Physicists have developed an innovative method that could enable the efficient use of nanocomponents in electronic circuits. To achieve this, they have developed a layout in which a nanocomponent is connected to two electrical conductors, which uncouple the electrical signal in a highly efficient manner. The scientists at the Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel have published their results in the scientific journal “Nature Communications” together with their colleagues from ETH Zurich.

Electronic components are becoming smaller and smaller. Components measuring just a few nanometers – the size of around ten atoms – are already being produced...

Im Focus: IoT-based Advanced Automobile Parking Navigation System

Development and implementation of an advanced automobile parking navigation platform for parking services

To fulfill the requirements of the industry, PolyU researchers developed the Advanced Automobile Parking Navigation Platform, which includes smart devices,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

International symposium: trends in spatial analysis and modelling for a more sustainable land use

20.05.2015 | Event News

15th conference of the International Association of Colloid and Interface Scientists

18.05.2015 | Event News

EHFG 2015: Securing health in Europe. Balancing priorities, sharing responsibilities

12.05.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Quasi-sexual gene transfer drives genetic diversity of hot spring bacteria

29.05.2015 | Life Sciences

First Eastern Pacific tropical depression runs ahead of dawn

29.05.2015 | Earth Sciences

Donuts, math, and superdense teleportation of quantum information

29.05.2015 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>