Inspired by the biology, soft robots have drawn tremendous attention due to its large and continuous deformation, friendly human-machine interaction, large number of degrees of freedom (DOFs), capability of absorbing energy. They have been explored in broad applications ranging from dexterous soft gripper to the novel assistive devices. In the recent decade, numerous soft actuating materials and deformable structures have been developed to construct soft robots, including hydrogels, shape memory polymers (SMPs), dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs), fluid elastomer actuators (FEAs) and magnetic actuators. However, those materials and structures have well-known limitations such as slow actuation speed, irreversibility, high voltage input and bulky controlling systems. Liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs), as newly emerging soft actuating materials, exhibit large and reversible deformation and versatile actuation modes. Based on the molecular structure, LCE can be viewed as a combination of liquid crystal molecules and polymer networks. When the LCE is heated above the critical temperature, it can generate large deformation because of the nematic-isotropic phase transition. However, in terms of the practical use of LCE, a few challenges exist such as lack of programmable operation and slow responsive speed for LCEs, which need to be addressed.
In this dissertation, we first integrate flexible heating wire into LCE tube, forming electrically controlled soft tubular actuator. By selectively applying low electrical voltage, this soft tubular actuator can exhibit multiple actuation modes, such as different directional bending and homogeneous contraction. The LCE soft tubular actuator can also be integrated to construct untethered robot that can execute multiple functionalities. To address the slow responsive speed of LCE based soft actuator, we embed microfluidic channel into LCE, forming vascular LCE soft actuator. Through alternatively injecting hot and cold fluid into its internal fluidic channel, the vascular LCE soft actuator can generate fast actuation as well as recovery. In addition, by introducing the disulfide bonds into the LCE materials, the newly obtained vascular LCE based soft actuator has shown repairability and recyclability. Finally, we use electrospinning technique to fabricate LCE microfiber that can be actuated by NIR light. We demonstrate that the electrospun LCE fiber can be easily integrated to micro-robotic system and machine as artificial muscle fiber.