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Rutgers University-New Brunswick engineers have created a 3D-printed smart gel that can walk underwater, grab objects and move them, according to Eurek Alert.

This smart gel could spearhead innovations for soft robots that can walk underwater without harming the environment. Additionally, it could aid in the production of artificial hearts and other muscles, along with help devices diagnose disease, and detect and deliver drugs.

The smart gel is not only flexible, but also cheaper to manufacture and can be miniaturized. Devices made from soft materials are often easier to design and control, compared to hard devices that can be more complex.

The 3D-printing process of the smart gel works when light is projected onto a light-sensitive solution that creates the gel. The hydrogel is put into a salty water solution and two wires conduct electricity to trigger the gel’s movement. The smart gel stands about one-inch tall as it walks.

By changing the gel’s dimensions, researchers can control the speed of its movements. The gel bends and alters its shape based on the strength of the salty water and electric field.

"Our 3D-printed smart gel has great potential in biomedical engineering because it resembles tissues in the human body that also contain lots of water and are very soft," said Howon Lee, senior author of a new study and an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. "It can be used for many different types of underwater devices that mimic aquatic life like the octopus."

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