As wearable Health Tech devices tackle more sophisticated tasks, they will need to incorporate more sophisticated abilities. One such function is movement; it’s easy to think of applications where it could be useful for sensors to be able to move to different parts of the body as needed, without requiring intervention from the person wearing the device. This action could be accomplished using traditional motors and gears and other familiar components. But researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have another idea.

What if a material could provide it’s own motility? Researchers at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering have developed a plastic ribbon that moves when illuminated by ultraviolet light. Working in conjunction with researchers from Inha University in South Korea and the Air Force Research Laboratory, they created a monolithic plastic that is made from liquid crystal material. When exposed to light, the strips spontaneously form a spiral that then starts to move.

The plastic ribbons create enough force to climb a glass slide at a 15-degree angle. The flexible material could ultimately become a means of movement for “soft” robots, serving as muscles or other functions. The simplicity of the material eliminates complex moving parts, and since it is powered by light, it does not require restrictive electrical connections.