By Holly Riddle
Robert Hickey, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State
Penn State is no stranger to materials research. Referenced as “Materials Valley” in the past, Happy Valley has positioned itself at the forefront of this area of research that touches “virtually every field of science and engineering,” according to the university.
Robert Hickey, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, recently discovered a new process for creating biomimetic soft actuator materials (actuators, Hickey said, are any material that will change or deform under external stimuli) that resemble natural skeletal muscle. The new process, a release stated, could lead to advances in robotics, prosthetics and smart clothing.
We spoke to Hickey to learn more about his research.
What is your research topic and why is it important on a global scale?
My research group explores new processing and reaction procedures to synthesize soft materials that are precisely organized over many length scales, such as nano to micrometer, which is what we call hierarchically-ordered. Natural tissues are inherently hierarchical, and current ways to fabricate materials that mimic nature are challenging. The chemistry and structure of natural materials are the reason for the exceptional function.
"Penn State is in the forefront of materials research, especially in polymer science. There is a strong community across many departments and institutes that is collaborative and are actively pushing research boundaries."
The recently published Nature Nanotechnology article reveals an alternative processing approach for creating biomimetic soft actuator materials that resemble natural skeletal muscle. Typical actuators are mechanical motors that contract, expand or rotate.
There are many research groups that are actively investigating ways to create soft actuator materials, but the focus is on how to engineer specific material properties. My group approaches materials synthesis from a different perspective that connects chemistry, structure and function. The published work highlights that, to realize synthetic biomimetic materials that outperform natural tissues, one must consider chemistry and structure to maximize performance.
How do you envision your research impacting/changing your industry?
Advances in functional soft material actuators that contract, expand or rotate when triggered with an external stimulus are necessary to realize the future of new robotic assemblies with superior biologically-relevant functions. Current research efforts are focused on synthesizing new soft materials to mimic natural muscles from a performance perspective but neglect the impact of chemical composition and structure hierarchy, which are core features for the exceptional actuation properties of human muscles. We envision that the reported soft actuator materials will open new avenues for synthesizing materials that can be used in soft robotics or interfacing with living tissue.
What inspired you to follow this line of research?
I have always been interested in synthetic materials that mimic natural systems. As an undergraduate student, I worked on understanding how living organisms, through the use of proteins, dictate inorganic crystal growth, or what is called biomineralization. To better control and create new biomimetic materials, I needed a more fundamental understanding in polymers, which are macromolecules. Polymers and proteins are macromolecules and are synthesized by chemically-connecting small molecules in a chain-like fashion.
My research group works in the broad area of polymer science, and we investigate how to use chemistry and physics to create materials that are hierarchically-ordered.
Why did you choose to conduct this research at Penn State specifically?
Penn State is in the forefront of materials research, especially in polymer science. There is a strong community across many departments and institutes that is collaborative and are actively pushing research boundaries. Furthermore, the research and characterization facilities are first-rate and enable the crosscutting and interdisciplinary science that my research group needs to create new soft materials.
Would you encourage other researchers to make their home in Happy Valley, and why?
Of course. Penn State is active in fundamental and applied research, and there is always someone that you can collaborate with or brainstorm new ideas. It is possible to find university support to explore new research directions that are not ready for federal agencies. Furthermore, Happy Valley is family-friendly, and the public schools are strong. There are unlimited options for outdoor activities, especially for the whole family.
Are you aware of ground-breaking research happening in Happy Valley that the world needs to know about? Let us know! Reach out, at firstname.lastname@example.org.