Robots Run on Popcorn Power

October
2018

Engineering graduate students at Cornell Univ. are powering simple robots with a novel material that is both microwaveable and delicious — popcorn.

A popcorn kernel is able to expand to about 15 times its original size as it pops, and its compression strength is comparable to that of construction foam, making it difficult to crush once popped. Its maximum popping force (52.5 mN) is relatively powerful for its size. In a series of four demonstrations, the students used the explosive force of popping popcorn to power their creatively constructed robots.

In the first demonstration, the students constructed three rods wrapped in coils of wire. They then stuffed each coil-rod structure with a dozen corn kernels. These three rods were individually sheathed in polymer, and then wrapped together into one thick polymer-covered beam. The beam first hung limply then stiffened as researchers applied voltage to the coils and the popcorn popped. The kernels exploded at temperatures around 200°C. This transition from soft to rigid, called jamming, is ultimately able to facilitate a gripping motion by a robot.

The...

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