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“You really can’t justify tuna in Chicago as a source of sustenance.” That’s according to Dr. Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society Explorer who was the first female chief scientist at NOAA. She came to the Good Food Institute’s Good Food Conference to deliver a call to action around global food security, agriculture, environmental protection, and the future of consumer choice.
It seems like all options should be on the table to feed an exploding population threatened by climate change. But Dr. Earle, who is faculty at Singularity University, drew a sharp distinction between seafood for sustenance versus seafood as a choice. “There is this widespread claim that we must take large numbers of wildlife from the sea in order to have food security.”
A few minutes later, Dr. Earle directly addressed those of us in the audience. “We know the value of a dead fish,” she said. That’s market price. “But what is the value of a live fish in the ocean?”
That’s when my mind blew open. What is the value—or put another way, the cost—of using the ocean as a major source of protein for humans? How do you put a number on that? Are we talking about dollars and cents, or about something far larger?
Dr. Liz Specht of the Good Food Institute drew the audience’s attention to a strange imbalance. Currently, about half of the yearly global catch of seafood comes from aquaculture. That means that the other half is wild caught. It’s hard to imagine half of your meat coming directly from the forests and the plains, isn’t it? And yet half of the world’s seafood comes from direct harvesting of the oceans, by way of massive overfishing, a terrible toll from bycatch, a widespread lack of regulation and enforcement, and even human rights violations such as slavery.
The search for solutions is on, from both within the fishing industry and from external agencies such as governments and philanthropists. Could there be another way?
Makers of plant-based seafood and clean seafood think they know how to feed the global demand for seafood without harming the ocean. These companies are part of a larger movement harnessing technology to reduce our reliance on wild and domesticated animals—and all the environmental, economic, and ethical issues that come with it.
Producers of plant-based seafood (20 or so currently) are working to capture the taste, texture, and nutrition of conventional seafood without the limitations of geography or the health of a local marine population. Like with plant-based meat, makers of plant-based seafood are harnessing food science and advances in chemistry, biology, and engineering to make great food. The industry’s strategy? Start with what the consumer wants, and then figure out how to achieve that great taste through technology.
So how does plant-based seafood taste? Pretty good, as it turns out. (The biggest benefit of a food-oriented conference is that your mouth is always full!)
I sampled “tuna” salad made from Good Catch Food’s fish-free tuna, which is sourced from legumes; the texture was nearly indistinguishable from that of flaked albacore tuna, and there was no lingering fishy taste to overpower my next bite. In a blind taste test, I probably wouldn’t have known that I was eating a plant-based seafood alternative. Next I reached for Ocean Hugger Food’s Ahimi, a tomato-based alternative to raw tuna. I adore Hawaiian poke, so I was pleasantly surprised when my Ahimi-based poke captured the bite of ahi tuna. It wasn’t quite as delightfully fatty as raw tuna, but with wild tuna populations struggling to recover from a 97% decline in numbers from 40 years ago, Ahimi is a giant stride in the right direction.
These plant-based alternatives aren’t the only game in town, however.
The clean meat industry, which has also been called “cultured meat” or “cellular agriculture,” isn’t seeking to lure consumers away from animal protein. Instead, cells are sampled from live animals and grown in bioreactors—meaning that no animal is slaughtered to produce real meat.
Clean seafood is poised to piggyback off platforms developed for clean meat; growing fish cells in the lab should rely on the same processes as growing meat cells. I know of four companies currently focusing on seafood (Finless Foods, Wild Type, BlueNalu, and Seafuture Sustainable Biotech), and a few more are likely to emerge from stealth mode soon.
Importantly, there’s likely not much difference between growing clean seafood from the top or the bottom of the food chain. Tuna, for example, are top predators that must grow for at least 10 years before they’re suitable as food. Each year, a tuna consumes thousands of pounds of other fish, shellfish, and plankton. That “long tail of groceries,” said Dr. Earle, “is a pretty expensive choice.” Excitingly, clean tuna would “level the trophic playing field,” as Dr. Specht pointed out.
All this is only the beginning of what might be possible.
Combining synthetic biology with clean meat and seafood means that future products could be personalized for individual taste preferences or health needs, by reprogramming the DNA of the cells in the lab. Industries such as bioremediation and biofuels likely have a lot to teach us about sourcing new ingredients and flavors from algae and marine plants. By harnessing rapid advances in automation, robotics, sensors, machine vision, and other big-data analytics, the manufacturing and supply chains for clean seafood could be remarkably safe and robust. Clean seafood would be just that: clean, without pathogens, parasites, or the plastic threatening to fill our oceans, meaning that you could enjoy it raw.
What about price? Dr. Mark Post, a pioneer in clean meat who is also faculty at Singularity University, estimated that 80% of clean-meat production costs come from the expensive medium in which cells are grown—and some ingredients in the medium are themselves sourced from animals, which misses the point of clean meat. Plus, to grow a whole cut of food, like a fish fillet, the cells need to be coaxed into a complex 3D structure with various cell types like muscle cells and fat cells. These two technical challenges must be solved before clean meat and seafood give consumers the experience they want, at the price they want.
In this respect clean seafood has an unusual edge. Most of what we know about growing animal cells in the lab comes from the research and biomedical industries (from tissue engineering, for example)—but growing cells to replace an organ has different constraints than growing cells for food. The link between clean seafood and biomedicine is less direct, empowering innovators to throw out dogma and find novel reagents, protocols, and equipment to grow seafood that captures the tastes, textures, smells, and overall experience of dining by the ocean.
Asked to predict when we’ll be seeing clean seafood in the grocery store, Lou Cooperhouse the CEO of BlueNalu, explained that the challenges aren’t only in the lab: marketing, sales, distribution, and communication with consumers are all critical. As Niya Gupta, the founder of Fork & Goode, said, “The question isn’t ‘can we do it’, but ‘can we sell it’?”
The good news is that the clean meat and seafood industry is highly collaborative; there are at least two dozen companies in the space, and they’re all talking to each other. “This is an ecosystem,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, the co-founder of Memphis Meats. “We’re not competing with each other.” It will likely be at least a decade before science, business, and regulation enable clean meat and seafood to routinely appear on restaurant menus, let alone market shelves.
Until then, think carefully about your food choices. Meditate on Dr. Earle’s question: “What is the real cost of that piece of halibut?” Or chew on this from Dr. Ricardo San Martin, of the Sutardja Center at the University of California, Berkeley: “Food is a system of meanings, not an object.” What are you saying when you choose your food, about your priorities and your values and how you want the future to look? Do you think about animal welfare? Most ethical regulations don’t extend to marine life, and if you don’t think that ocean creatures feel pain, consider the lobster.
Seafood is largely an acquired taste, since most of us don’t live near the water. Imagine a future in which children grow up loving the taste of delicious seafood but without hurting a living animal, the ocean, or the global environment.
Do more than imagine. As Dr. Earle urged us, “Convince the public at large that this is a really cool idea.”
Ahimi (Ocean Hugger)
New Wave Foods
Heritage Health Food
The Vegetarian Butcher
Table based on Figure 5 of the report “An Ocean of Opportunity: Plant-based and clean seafood for sustainable oceans without sacrifice,” from The Good Food Institute.
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From a first-principles perspective, the task of feeding eight billion people boils down to converting energy from the sun into chemical energy in our bodies.
Traditionally, solar energy is converted by photosynthesis into carbohydrates in plants (i.e., biomass), which are either eaten by the vegans amongst us, or fed to animals, for those with a carnivorous preference.
Today, the process of feeding humanity is extremely inefficient.
If we could radically reinvent what we eat, and how we create that food, what might you imagine that “future of food” would look like?
In this post we’ll cover:
CRISPR engineered foods
The alt-protein revolution
Let’s dive in.
Where we grow our food…
The average American meal travels over 1,500 miles from farm to table. Wine from France, beef from Texas, potatoes from Idaho.
Imagine instead growing all of your food in a 50-story tall vertical farm in downtown LA or off-shore on the Great Lakes where the travel distance is no longer 1,500 miles but 50 miles.
Delocalized farming will minimize travel costs at the same time that it maximizes freshness.
Perhaps more importantly, vertical farming also allows tomorrow’s farmer the ability to control the exact conditions of her plants year round.
Rather than allowing the vagaries of the weather and soil conditions to dictate crop quality and yield, we can now perfectly control the growing cycle.
LED lighting provides the crops with the maximum amount of light, at the perfect frequency, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
At the same time, sensors and robots provide the root system the exact pH and micronutrients required, while fine-tuning the temperature of the farm.
Such precision farming can generate yields that are 200% to 400% above normal.
Next let’s explore how we can precision-engineer the genetic properties of the plant itself.
CRISPR and Genetically Engineered Foods
What food do we grow?
A fundamental shift is occurring in our relationship with agriculture. We are going from evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) to evolution by human direction.
CRISPR (the cutting edge gene editing tool) is providing a pathway for plant breeding that is more predictable, faster and less expensive than traditional breeding methods.
Rather than our crops being subject to nature’s random, environmental whim, CRISPR unlocks our capability to modify our crops to match the available environment.
Further, using CRISPR we will be able to optimize the nutrient density of our crops, enhancing their value and volume.
CRISPR may also hold the key to eliminating common allergens from crops. As we identify the allergen gene in peanuts, for instance, we can use CRISPR to silence that gene, making the crops we raise safer for and more accessible to a rapidly growing population.
Yet another application is our ability to make plants resistant to infection or more resistant to drought or cold.
Helping to accelerate the impact of CRISPR, the USDA recently announced that genetically engineered crops will not be regulated—providing an opening for entrepreneurs to capitalize on the opportunities for optimization CRISPR enables.
CRISPR applications in agriculture are an opportunity to help a billion people and become a billionaire in the process.
Protecting crops against volatile environments, combating crop diseases and increasing nutrient values, CRISPR is a promising tool to help feed the world’s rising population.
The Alt-Protein/Lab-Grown Meat Revolution
Something like a third of the Earth’s arable land is used for raising livestock—a massive amount of land—and global demand for meat is predicted to double in the coming decade.
Today, we must grow an entire cow—all bones, skin, and internals included—to produce a steak.
Imagine if we could instead start with a single muscle stem cell and only grow the steak, without needing the rest of the cow? Think of it as cellular agriculture.
Imagine returning millions, perhaps billions, of acres of grazing land back to the wilderness? This is the promise of lab-grown meats.
Lab-grown meat can also be engineered (using technology like CRISPR) to be packed with nutrients and be the healthiest, most delicious protein possible.
We’re watching this technology develop in real time. Several startups across the globe are already working to bring artificial meats to the food industry.
JUST, Inc. (previously Hampton Creek) run by my friend Josh Tetrick, has been on a mission to build a food system where everyone can get and afford delicious, nutritious food. They started by exploring 300,000+ species of plants all around the world to see how they can make food better and now are investing heavily in stem-cell-grown meats.
Backed by Richard Branson and Bill Gates, Memphis Meats is working on ways to produce real meat from animal cells, rather than whole animals. So far, they have produced beef, chicken, and duck using cultured cells from living animals.
As with vertical farming, transitioning production of our majority protein source to a carefully cultivated environment allows for agriculture to optimize inputs (water, soil, energy, land footprint), nutrients and, importantly, taste.
Vertical farming and cellular agriculture are reinventing how we think about our food supply chain and what food we produce.
The next question to answer is who will be producing the food?
Let’s look back at how farming evolved through history.
Farmers 0.0 (Neolithic Revolution, around 9000 BCE): The hunter-gatherer to agriculture transition gains momentum, and humans cultivated the ability to domesticate plants for food production.
Farmers 1.0 (until around the 19th century): Farmers spent all day in the field performing backbreaking labor, and agriculture accounted for most jobs.
Farmers 2.0 (mid-20th century, Green Revolution): From the invention of the first farm tractor in 1812 through today, transformative mechanical biochemical technologies (fertilizer) boosted yields and made the job of farming easier, driving the US farm job rate down to less than two percent today.
Farmers 3.0: In the near future, farmers will leverage exponential technologies (e.g., AI, networks, sensors, robotics, drones), CRISPR and genetic engineering, and new business models to solve the world’s greatest food challenges and efficiently feed the eight-billion-plus people on Earth.
An important driver of the Farmer 3.0 evolution is the delocalization of agriculture driven by vertical and urban farms. Vertical farms and urban agriculture are empowering a new breed of agriculture entrepreneurs.
Let’s take a look at an innovative incubator in Brooklyn, New York called Square Roots.
Ten farm-in-a-shipping-containers in a Brooklyn parking lot represent the first Square Roots campus. Each 8-foot x 8.5-foot x 20-foot shipping container contains an equivalent of 2 acres of produce and can yield more than 50 pounds of produce each week.
For 13 months, one cohort of next-generation food entrepreneurs takes part in a curriculum with foundations in farming, business, community and leadership.
The urban farming incubator raised a $5.4 million seed funding round in August 2017.
Training a new breed of entrepreneurs to apply exponential technology to growing food is essential to the future of farming.
One of our massive transformative purposes at the Abundance Group is to empower entrepreneurs to generate extraordinary wealth while creating a world of abundance. Vertical farms and cellular agriculture are key elements enabling the next generation of food and agriculture entrepreneurs.
Technology is driving food abundance.
We’re already seeing food become demonetized, as the graph below shows.
From 1960 to 2014, the percent of income spent on food in the U.S. fell from 19 percent to under 10 percent of total disposable income—a dramatic decrease over the 40 percent of household income spent on food in 1900.
The dropping percent of per-capita disposable income spent on food. Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Food Expenditure Series
Ultimately, technology has enabled a massive variety of food at a significantly reduced cost and with fewer resources used for production.
We’re increasingly going to optimize and fortify the food supply chain to achieve more reliable, predictable, and nutritious ways to obtain basic sustenance.
And that means a world with abundant, nutritious, and inexpensive food for every man, woman, and child.
What an extraordinary time to be alive.
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Hardly a day goes by without a research study or article published talking sh*t—or more precisely, talking about the gut microbiome. When it comes to cutting-edge innovations in medicine, all signs point to the microbiome. Maybe we should have listened to Hippocrates: “All disease begins in the gut.”
Your microbiome is mostly located in your gut and contains trillions of little guys and gals called microbes. If you want to optimize your health, biohack your body, make progress against chronic disease, or know which foods are right for you—almost all of this information can be found in your microbiome.
My company, Viome, offers technology to measure your microscopic organisms and their behavior at a molecular level. Think of it as the Instagram of your inner world. A snapshot of what’s happening inside your body. New research about the microbiome is changing our understanding of who we are as humans and how the human body functions.
It turns out the microbiome may be mission control for your body and mind. Your healthy microbiome is part best friend, part power converter, part engine, and part pharmacist. At Viome, we’re working to analyze these microbial functions and recommend a list of personalized food and supplements to keep these internal complex machines in a finely tuned balance.
We now have more information than ever before about what your microbiome is doing, and it’s going to help you and the rest of the world do a whole lot better. The new insights emerging from microbiome research are changing our perception of what keeps us healthy and what makes us sick. This new understanding of the microbiome activities may put an end to conflicting food advice and make fad diets a thing of the past.
What are these new insights showing us? The information is nothing short of mind-blowing. The value of your poop just got an upgrade.
Here are some of the amazing things we’ve learned from our work at Viome.
1. Was Popeye wrong? Why “health food” isn’t necessarily healthy.
Each week there is a new fad diet released, discussed, and followed. The newest “research” shows that this is now the superfood to eat for everyone. But, too often, the fad diet is just a regurgitation of what worked for one person and shouldn’t be followed by everyone else.
For example, we’ve been told to eat our greens and that greens and nuts are “anti-inflammatory,” but this is actually not always true. Spinach, bran, rhubarb, beets, nuts, and nut butters all contain oxalate. We now know that oxalate-containing food can be harmful, unless you have the microbes present that can metabolize it into a non-harmful substance.
30% of Viome customers do not have the microbes to metabolize oxalates properly. In other words, “healthy foods” like spinach are actually not healthy for these people.
Looks like not everyone should follow Popeye’s food plan.
2. Aren’t foods containing “antioxidants” always good for everyone?
Just like oxalates, polyphenols in foods are usually considered very healthy, but unless you have microbes that utilize specific polyphenols, you may not get full benefit from them. One example is a substance found in these foods called ellagic acid. We can detect if your microbiome is metabolizing ellagic acid and converting it into urolithin A. It is only the urolithin A that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Without the microbes to do this conversion you will not benefit from the ellagic acid in foods.
Examples: Walnuts, raspberries, pomegranate, blackberries, pecans, and cranberries all contain ellagic acid.
We have analyzed tens of thousands of people, and only about 50% of the people actually benefit from eating more foods containing ellagic acid.
3. You’re probably eating too much protein (and it may be causing inflammation).
When you think high-protein diet, you think paleo, keto, and high-performance diets.
Protein is considered good for you. It helps build muscle and provide energy—but if you eat too much, it can cause inflammation and decrease longevity.
We can analyze the activity of your microbiome to determine if you are eating too much protein that feeds protein-fermenting bacteria like Alistipes putredinis and Tannerella forsythia, and if these organisms are producing harmful substances such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, p-cresol, or putrescine. These substances can damage your gut lining and lead to things like leaky gut.
4. Something’s fishy. Are “healthy foods” causing heart disease?
Choline in certain foods can get converted by bacteria into a substance called trimethylamine (TMA) that is associated with heart disease when it gets absorbed into your body and converted to TMAO. However, TMA conversion doesn’t happen in individuals without these types of bacteria in their microbiome.
We can see the TMA production pathways and many of the gammaproteobacteria that do this conversion.
What foods contain choline? Liver, salmon, chickpeas, split peas, eggs, navy beans, peanuts, and many others.
Before you decide to go full-on pescatarian or paleo, you may want to check if your microbiome is producing TMA with that salmon or steak.
5. Hold up, Iron Man. We can see inflammation from too much iron.
Minerals like iron in your food can, in certain inflammatory microbial environments, promote growth of pathogens like Esherichia, Shigella, and Salmonella.
Maybe it wasn’t just that raw chicken that gave you food poisoning, but your toxic microbiome that made you sick.
On the other hand, when you don’t have enough iron, you could become anemic leading to weakness and shortness of breath.
So, just like Iron Man, it’s about finding your balance so that you can fly.
6. Are you anxious or stressed? Your poop will tell you.
Our gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve. A large majority of neurotransmitters are either produced or consumed by our microbiome. In fact, some 90% of all serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) is produced by your gut microbiome and not by your brain.
When you have a toxic microbiome that’s producing a large amount of toxins like hydrogen sulfide, the lining of your gut starts to deteriorate into what’s known as leaky gut. Think of leaky gut as your gut not having healthy borders or boundaries. And when this happens, all kinds of disease can emerge. When the barrier of the gut breaks down, it starts a chain reaction causing low-grade chronic inflammation—which has been identified as a potential source of depression and higher levels of anxiety, in addition to many other chronic diseases.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t meditate, but if you want to get the most out of your meditation and really reduce your stress levels, make sure you are eating the right food that promotes a healthy microbiome.
7. Your microbiome is better than Red Bull.
If you want more energy, get your microbiome back into balance.
No you don’t need three pots of coffee to keep you going, you just need a balanced microbiome.
Your microbiome is responsible for calorie extraction, or creating energy, through pathways such as the Tricarboxylic acid cycle. Our bodies depend on the energy that our microbiome produces.
How much energy we get from our food is dependent on how efficient our microbiome is at converting the food into energy. High-performing microbiomes are excellent at converting food into energy. This is great when you are an athlete and need the extra energy, but if you don’t use up the energy it may be the source of some of those unwanted pounds.
If the microbes can’t or won’t metabolize the glucose (sugar) that you eat, it will be stored as fat. If the microbes are extracting too many calories from your food or producing lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and causing metabolic endotoxemia leading to activation of toll-like receptors and insulin resistance you may end up storing what you eat as fat.
Think of your microbiome as Doc Brown’s car from the future—it can take pretty much anything and turn it into fuel if it’s strong and resilient enough.
8. We can see your joint pain in your poop.
Got joint pain? Your microbiome can tell you why.
Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) is a key pro-inflammatory molecule made by some of your microbes. If your microbes are making too much LPS, it can wreak havoc on your immune system by putting it into overdrive. When your immune system goes on the warpath there is often collateral damage to your joints and other body parts.
Perhaps balancing your microbiome is a better solution than reaching for the glucosamine. Think of your microbiome as the top general of your immune army. It puts your immune system through basic training and determines when it goes to war.
Ideally, your immune system wins the quick battle and gets some rest, but sometimes if your microbiome keeps it on constant high alert it becomes a long, drawn-out war resulting in chronic inflammation and chronic diseases.
Are you really “getting older” or is your microbiome just making you “feel” older because it keeps giving warnings to your immune system ultimately leading to chronic pain?
Before you throw in the towel on your favorite activities, check your microbiome. And, if you have anything with “itis” in it, it’s possible that when you balance your microbiome the inflammation from your “itis” will be reduced.
9. Your gut is doing the talking for your mouth.
When you have low stomach acid, your mouth bacteria makes it down to your GI tract.
Stomach acid is there to protect you from the bacteria in your mouth and the parasites and fungi that are in your food. If you don’t have enough of it, the bacteria in your mouth will invade your gut. This invasion is associated with and a risk factor for autoimmune disease and inflammation in the gut.
We are learning that low stomach acid is perhaps one of the major causes of chronic disease. This stomach acid is essential to kill mouth bacteria and help us digest our food.
What kinds of things cause low stomach acid? Stress and antacids like Nexium, Zantac, and Prilosec.
10. Carbs can be protein precursors.
Rejoice! Perhaps carbs aren’t as bad as we thought (as long as your microbiome is up to the task). We can see if some of the starches you eat can be made into amino acids by the microbiome.
Our microbiome makes 20% of our branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) for us, and it will adapt to make these vital BCAAs for us in almost any way it can.
Essentially, your microbiome is hooking up carbons and hydrogens into different formulations of BCAAs, depending on what you feed it. The microbiome is excellent at adapting and pivoting based on the food you feed it and the environment that it’s in.
So, good news: Carbs are protein precursors, as long as you have the right microbiome.
Stop Talking Sh*t Now
Your microbiome is a world class entrepreneur that can take low-grade sources of food and turn them into valuable and useable energy.
You have a best friend and confidant within you that is working wonders to make sure you have energy and that all of your needs are met.
And, just like a best friend, if you take great care of your microbiome, it will take great care of you.
Given the research emerging daily about the microbiome and its importance on your quality of life, prioritizing the health of your microbiome is essential.
When you have a healthy microbiome, you’ll have a healthy life.
It’s now clear that some of the greatest insights for your health will come from your poop.
It’s time to stop talking sh*t and get your sh*t together. Your life may depend on it.
Viome can help you identify what your microbiome is actually doing. The combination of Viome’s metatranscriptomic technology and cutting-edge artificial intelligence is paving a brand new path forward for microbiome health.
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Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.
Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
Image Credit: Keplinger Research Group/University of Colorado Continue reading