Dielectric polymers are widely used in a plurality of applications, such as electrical insulation, dielectric capacitors, and electromechanical actuators. Dielectric polymers with large strain deformations under an electric field are named dielectric elastomers (DE), because of their relative low modulus, high elongation at break, and outstanding resilience. Dielectric elastomer actuators (DEA) are superior to traditional transducers as a muscle-like technology: large strains, high energy densities, high coupling efficiency, quiet operation, and light weight.
One focus of this dissertation is on the design of DE materials with high performance and easy processing. UV radiation curing of reactive species is studied as a generic synthesis methodology to provide a platform for material scientists to customize their own DE materials. Oligomers/monomers, crosslinkers, and other additives are mixed and cured at appropriate ratios to control the stress-strain response, suppress electromechanical instability of the resulting polymers, and provide stable actuation strains larger than 100% and energy densities higher than 1 J/g. The processing is largely simplified in the new material system by removal of the prestretching step. Multilayer stack actuators with 11% linear strain are demonstrated in a procedure fully compatible with industrial production.
A multifunctional DE derivative material, bistable electroactive polymer (BSEP), is invented enabling repeatable rigid-to-rigid deformation without bulky external structures. Bistable actuation allows the polymer actuator to have two distinct states that can support external load without device failure. Plasticizers are used to lower the glass transition temperature to 45 degree Celsius. Interpenetrating polymer network structure is established inside the BSEP to suppress electromechanical instability, providing a breakdown field of 194 MV/m and a stable bistable strain as large as 228% with a 97% strain fixity.
The application of BSEP in tactile display is investigated by the prototyping of a large scale refreshable Braille display device. Braille is a critical way for the vision impaired community to learn literacy and improve life quality. Current piezoelectrics-based refreshable Braille display technologies are limited to up to 1 line of Braille text, due to the bulky size of bimorph actuators. Based on the unique actuation feature of BSEP, refreshable Braille display devices up to smartphone-size have been demonstrated by polymer sheet laminates. Dots in the devices can be individually controlled via incorporated field-driven BSEP actuators and Joule heater units.
A composite material consisting of silver nanowires (AgNW) embedded in a polymer substrate is brought up as a compliant electrode candidate for BSEP application. The AgNW composite is highly conductive (Rs: 10 Ohm/sq) and remains conductive at strains as high as 140% (Rs: <1000 Ohm/sq). The baseline conductivity has only small changes up to 90% strain, which makes it low enough for both field driving and stretchable Joule heating. An out-of-plane bistable area strain up to 68% under Joule heating is achieved.