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The challenges associated with manufacturing power-dense, mm-scale, linear actuators are compounded when attempting to space large numbers of them closely together. When considering size, weight, power output and cost (SWaP-C) metrics, established actuation strategies tend to encounter steep mechanical performance barriers when engineered at the mm-scale, barriers which make one appreciate the elegance of skeletal muscle. A comparable mm-scale artificial muscle analog would be revolutionary, yet research has not replicated repeatable actuation structures close to the size of actin and myosin. There is now a growing commercial desire for arrays of 100s to 1000s of miniature actuators due to developments in the virtual reality and accessible technology industries. Rather than optimizing existing electrostatic, electromagnetic, piezoelectric, or thermal motion design principles, I investigate combustion’s potential to be a power-dense mm-scale actuation modality. With my colleagues, we find that oxygen-enriched mixtures of hydrocarbons, when ignited in molded rubber chambers, quickly inflate thin elastomeric “pistons” outward, producing kHz-frequency actuations with >1 W stroke power outputs. We confirm repeatable oxy-fuel combustion using mixtures containing methane, propane, and butane. In array configurations, microfluidic fuel delivery networks confine flames to their intended cylinder, enabling individual control of these closely spaced fluidic actuators without the need for valves. My soft end effector design provides a conformable, easily manufacturable actuation platform. Lessons from our microcombustion investigation are demonstrated in an untethered combustion system powering a 10x10 array of 2 mm-diameter bistable rubber dots, conceptually validating a potential wearable haptic or multiline tactile display technology.

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181 pages

Supplemental file(s) description: Tactile display system demonstration.


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Microcombustion; Microfluidics; Soft robotics; Tactile displays


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Shepherd, Robert

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Bouklas, Nikolaos
Lal, Amit

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Theoretical and Applied Mechanics

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Ph. D., Theoretical and Applied Mechanics

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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