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Gizmorama - June 6, 2016

Good Morning,

Have you heard about the new way to monitor chocolate quality? Well, you should have - it's ultrasound waves.

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- Robotics engineers design actuators inspired by muscle --*

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Actuators are the "muscles" of robots -- the moving parts. Researchers at Harvard are working to build actuators that are more like, well, muscles.

The advantage of a muscle-like actuator is that it is soft, malleable and more resilient. Engineers have designed robots in all sorts of shapes and out of all sorts of materials -- origami robots, bumble bee robots, inchworm robots.

But most soft-bodied robots remain small and relatively weak. Big and powerful robots are mostly still hard-bodied and angular. As such, they pose a danger to themselves as well as humans. If robots are to integrate seamlessly with humans, they need to become more human-like.

A team of researchers set out to build an actuator inspired by the human bicep.

The scientists, led by George Whitesides, a professor at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, designed a soft-bodied actuator with small, hollow honeycomb-like chambers of air. Similar designs have been built and actuated by pressurized air, but Whitesides and his team designed theirs to contract by buckling as air is sucked out by a vacuum.

They dubbed the technology VAMPs -- short for vacuum-actuated muscle-inspired pneumatic structures.

Researchers recalled their efforts in a new paper, published this week in the journal Advance Materials Technologies.

"Having VAMPs built of soft elastomers would make it much easier to automate a robot that could be used to help humans in the service industry," first author Dian Yang, a former Harvard grad student, now a postdoctoral researcher, said in a news release.

"There are other soft actuators that have been developed, but this one is most similar to muscle in terms of response time and efficiency," added Whitesides.

The actuator is not only soft, it also avoids the use of pressurized gas.

"It can't explode, so it's intrinsically safe," said Whitesides.

"These self-healing, bioinspired actuators bring us another step closer to being able to build entirely soft-bodied robots, which may help to bridge the gap between humans and robots and open entirely new application areas in medicine and beyond," concluded Donald Ingber, the founding director of the Wyss Institute.

*-- Researchers use ultrasound to gauge chocolate quality --*

LEUVEN, Belgium - High quality chocolate must have high quality cocoa butter crystal formation.

Currently, the process for checking crystal formation during the chocolate hardening process is rather time-consuming -- and time is money. But scientists have found a new way to monitor cocoa crystallization.

Cocoa butter is the fat in chocolate. The crystalline structure it forms as a bar of chocolate hardens is a key component in all the qualities of a fine bar of Belgian chocolate -- the glossy exterior, the shelf life stability, the sharp snap of a broken bar, the melty mouthfeel.

Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgian found that ultrasound waves can correctly measure the formation of cocoa crystals.

"Cocoa butter crystallizes as the liquid chocolate hardens," Koen Van Den Abeele, a professor of physics at KU Leuven, explained in a news release. "Five types of crystals can be formed during this process, but only one of these has the qualities we want. The number, size, shape, and the way in which the crystals stick together play an important role as well."

The new chocolate-checking ultrasound technology works much like devices used to monitor the health of a human fetus in the womb of an expecting mother.

"When the cocoa butter is liquid, the ultrasonic wave is reflected in its entirety," Van Den Abeele said. "As soon as the butter crystallizes, part of the sound wave penetrates the cocoa butter, so the amount of reflection we measure changes."

"This enables us to see how the different crystals stick together, which is important for the ultimate properties of the chocolate," Van Den Abeele concluded.

Chocolate manufacturers currently must take a chocolate sample off the production line to be checked in the lab. The process is time-consuming and doesn't allow for fast intervention if a problem is detected. As a result, a significant amount of chocolate is wasted.

Researchers are now working on turning their lab prototype into an ultrasonic device that can be deployed in a working chocolate factory.


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