From the months of May to July in 2013, I was one of the twelve Engineering Science students from the University of Toronto to participate in a research exchange program arranged by the Centre for International Experience. The National University of Singapore’s Engineering Science Programme hosted the exchange opportunity. I, along with my fellow student Kevin Zhu, worked under Dr. Koh Soo Jin Adrian, an assistant professor in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Our research, entitled “Actuation of Dielectric Elastomers as Artificial Muscle,” focused on analyzing and experimenting with various elastomers to achieve giant actuation and successful lifting mechanisms.
A dielectric elastomer consists of a viscoelastic polymer sandwiched between two compliant electrodes. When voltage is applied across the electrodes, electrostatic forces cause opposite electrodes to attract, thereby squeezing the elastomer and allowing it to lengthen, or actuate. This technology, if developed properly, will be able to serve as actuation mechanisms within robotic systems without the need of motors or excessive mechanical parts.
The research I conducted focused on the following topics: achieving giant actuation in elastomers of 600%, actuating different types of elastomers, and analyzing lifting strengths and cycles. We summarized our findings in an extensive report, which documented the procedures, results, and conclusions of every experiment. It is interesting to note that prior to the work in Dr. Koh’s lab, no dielectric elastomer actuation had achieved a higher actuation percentage. We not only achieved a record-breaking experimental actuation, but also tested various elastomers, recorded hysteresis loss cycles, and determined lifting strengths in terms of mass of elastomer: mass of weight. We delineated common errors in experimentation and how to minimize them, and classified each elastomer in terms of actuation success. The well-equipped, organized lab housed eight intern students, including myself.
The PhD student who assisted us in the understanding of theoretical and experimental elements of the project was extremely helpful and helped guide us in the right direction. Overall, we made valuable contributions to this specific field of research, gained important lab skills, and acquired extensive knowledge on the topic of dielectric elastomers. It was a fantastic educational opportunity for me, as it allowed me to apply my knowledge and to learn for myself what the research experience is like.
Outside of the lab, my classmates and I shared unforgettable memories. Being in a foreign country together was exciting and invigorating. In our free time, we would explore the country, visit attractions, and find time to relax and to enjoy each other’s company. During the weekends, we would even plan international trips to Malaysia and Indonesia. It was during this free time that we indulged in the rich Singaporean culture, and explored the amazing sights with open minds. I will always treasure the incredible opportunities that I came across during these two months of my exchange. In these 9 weeks, I was able to conduct interesting and advanced research, explore the wonders of Southeast Asia, and foster lifelong friendships with my fellow Engineering Science students. I am extremely grateful for my time in Singapore, because I was able to become richer in knowledge and experience.