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ERC-Starting Grant Gel-Sys

for Martin Kaltenbrunner

Smart HydroGEL SYStems – From Bioinspired Design to Soft Electronics and Machines

From a distance, we are simply a water-filled bag – yet we are sophisticated living beings capable of performing a myriad of intricate tasks. Nature uses ingenuity of form, entrapping and shaping the essence of life within specialized polymer networks that we call hydrogels. Evolution has developed a wide variety of hydrogels, some as soft as brain tissue, others as tough as tendons, to build the smart, soft creatures of our planet. On the contrary, as of now we humans have engineered our most ingenious electronic and robotic helpers to be hard and brittle.

Imagine we can build on the enormous knowledge found around us, and create a new form of soft and compliant, hydrogel-like smart systems. Imagine science fiction turning into reality via an evolution of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. This project will develop a new kind of soft, hydrogel-based electronic, ionic and photonic devices, creating the bionic systems of our future.

Drawing inspiration from natures “sticky” experts, we will achieve a high level of complexity in these soft, yet tough biomimetic devices and machines. Mimicking underwater dwellers like barnacles and mussels, enables us to develop instant strong bonding between hydrogels and antagonistic materials classes – from soft and elastic to hard and brittle. Building on these newly developed interfaces, biocompatible hydrogel electronics with iontronic transducers and large-area multimodal sensor arrays for a new class of medical tools and health monitors will be pursued. In our general perception and even in most science fiction movies, robots are still based on hard materials, however, a new trend on soft robots is currently emerging. Fostering this soft revolution with self-sensing, transparent grippers not occluding objects and workspace will be a major goal of this project. A soft robotic visual system with hydrogel-based adaptive optical elements and ultraflexible photosensor arrays will allow robots to see while grasping. Autonomous operation is a central question in soft systems, tackled in the project with tough stretchable batteries and energy harvesting from mechanical motion on small and large scales with soft membranes.

Exploring the unique properties of soft matter, insightfully and intimately united with solid materials, will push forward this young research field and trigger novel applications in many other areas. New concepts for medical equipment, health monitoring, consumer electronics, energy harvesting from renewable sources and in robotics will have imminent impact on our society.