To move objects heavier than us we have a variety of options to complete the task that will use hydraulics, pneumatics, or some other power source to drive the motion. At much smaller sizes though these drivers are not available, so other means must be developed. Researchers at Berkeley Lab have recently developed a new one of these drivers for operation at the microscale, and it may be able to grasp the crown from current methods.
Typically actuators at the microscale utilize piezoelectric which convert electricity into physical force, but the ratio of electricity to force can be quite extreme. The newly developed actuators however use vanadium dioxide which is a very special material. When it is heated the oxide physically deforms by shrinking in one dimension and expanding in the other two. At the same temperature it also switches from an insulator to a conductor, which is what the researchers were trying to examine when they noticed it would break off of the electrodes the material was attached to. Hoping to make something positive from this problem the researchers decided to build an actuator that takes advantage of this physical transition.
This new micoactuator has several advantages over traditional piezoelectric designs as it requires less electrical input but generates much more force. The vanadium dioxide device even delivers a thousand times more force for its mass than human muscle. The potential for such a device is amazing, especially as the researchers develop more configurations for more purposes.