Diminutive daisies as well as towering redwoods act as natural hydraulic pumps. These are pulling up water constantly from the roots to the leaves on the top and pumping sugars generated by leaves into the roots back down.it is a continuous stream of nutrients that is shuttled to a system of tissues known as phloem and xylem that are packed closely in parallel and woody conduits. A team of engineers working at MIT made a microfluidic device that is known as “tree-on-a-chip” that can iterate the pumping mechanism of plants and trees. Like its natural counterparts, these chips work in a very passive manner, needing no external pumps or moving parts. It can pump sugars and pump through this chip at a very contact flow rate for many days.
An associate and professor from head of operations at MIT;s mechanical engineering department, Anette “Peko” Hosoi, adds that the passive pumping can be leveraged as a basic hydraulic actuator for small sized robots. Engineers found it challenging to make a less expensive and smaller version of this pump with movable parts and empower complicated movements in small sized robots. The new pumping mechanism may empower robots whose movements are operated by sugar-powered, inexpensive pumps.
Hosoi further explained, “The goal of this work is cheap complexity, like one sees in nature. It’s easy to add another leaf or xylem channel in a tree. In small robotics, everything is hard, from manufacturing, to integration, to actuation. If we could make the building blocks that enable cheap complexity, that would be super exciting. I think these [microfluidic pumps] are a step in that direction.” The work inspired from tree came from a project that was on hydraulic robots that are powered by pumping fluids. The team leader was interested in creating hydraulic robots at a very small scale that could act in a manner similar to bigger robots like Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog. Hosoi says, “For small systems, it’s often expensive to manufacture tiny moving pieces. So we thought, ‘What if we could make a small-scale hydraulic system that could generate large pressures, with no moving parts?’ And then we asked, ‘Does anything do this in nature?’ It turns out that trees do.”
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