Physics professor Seth Fraden (PHYS) and his team of researchers have engineered a way to make soft material mimic neural tissue in the body by applying physics to biology and studying the sinuous motion of the blue eel.
“Our research interests [are] squarely in the intersection of physics, chemistry, biology and materials science,” Fraden said, emphasizing the importance of the intersection of these fields. The most difficult part of the process, according to Fraden, was having the creativity to get started. Once the team got through the challenges of the initial steps, things went smoothly (most of the time).
Fraden was inspired by the movement of a swimming blue eel and began studying its neural network and how chemical pulses drive the muscles it uses to swim.
The research was funded by the U.S. Army, but collaborating with the Army to create this soft material was not an initial priority. First, the team needed to find a way to combine physics and biology in an inanimate material to mimic the movement of the eel. When asked about his inspiration for the research, Professor Fraden noted that the “incredible continuous movement of the blue eel” triggered interest in the project.
Fraden explained that this smooth movement was what led to the question of why inanimate objects cannot move similarly. When people think about physics, they think of hard, robot-like movements, and on the contrary, with biology, people think of natural, smooth movements. Fraden’s research team aimed to create the continuous movements seen in nature with an inanimate object.
Looking to the future, the team plans to discover a way to mimic the contraction of muscular tissue in a chemo-mechanical gel. The research may also lead to “autonomous soft robotics, dual sensors and actuators for soft exoskeletons, or artificial skins,” according to the a U.S. Army Research Laboratory article. The Army Research Office (ARO) routinely funds scientific research educational institutes in order to “make future American Soldiers stronger and safer.”