In the past few years, engineers have made the artificial muscles that actuate, or drive, robotic devices from conjugated polymers. "Conjugated polymers are also called conducting polymers because they can carry an electric current, just like a metal wire," says Xi Lin, a postdoctoral associate in Yip's lab. (Conventional polymers like rubber and plastic are insulators and do not conduct electricity.)
Conjugated polymers can actuate on command if charges can be sent to specific locations in the polymer chain in the form of "solitons" (charge density waves). A soliton, short for solitary wave, is "like an ocean wave that can travel long distances without breaking up," Yip adds. (See figures.) Solitons are highly mobile charge carriers that exist because of the special nature (the one-dimensional chain character) of the polymer.
Scientists already knew that solitons enabled the conducting polymers to conduct electricity. Lin's work attempts to explain how these materials can activate devices. This study is useful because until now, scientists, hampered by not knowing the mechanism, have been making conducting polymers in a roundabout way, by bathing (doping) the materials with ions that expand the volume of the polymer. That expansion was thought to give the polymers their strength, but it also makes them heavy and slow.
Lin discovered that adding the ions is unnecessary, because theoretically, shining a light of a particular frequency on the conducting polymer can activate the soliton. Without the extra weight of the added ions, the polymers could bend and flex much more quickly. And that rapid-fire motion gives rise to the high-speed actuation, that is, the ability to activate a device.