UC Berkeley researchers find pasta can help build assistive robots

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UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering Oliver O’Reilly and campus graduate mechanical engineering student Nathaniel Goldberg constructed a model showing changes in the shape of spaghetti after it is placed in water, which could help researchers create more human-like robots.

Published in Physical Review, the study indicates that water can transform dry, stiff pasta into a more flexible material. Observing these changes helped the researchers understand how robots — which are often made from soft materials like rubber or silicon — can be manipulated in relation to different temperatures and environments, according to Berkeley News.

Ultimately, their findings will allow researchers to build models that better reflect the movement of living organisms, including humans. In health care, for example, robots with increased mobility could be used to assist doctors in the operating room, with the ability to pick up a variety of sensitive surgical instruments.

“We propose a minimal model for the cooking-induced deformation of spaghetti and related food products,” the study states. “We use our model to investigate the cooking of a single strand of spaghetti confined to a pot and reproduce a curious three-stage deformation sequence that arises in the cooking process.”

In order to help test malleability, O’Reilly and Goldberg took a single strand of spaghetti and placed it in a pot of room temperature water while measuring the physical changes of the strand over the span of two hours.

Taking a wide variety of factors into account — ranging from diameter to density  the model is able to predict the changes in the spaghetti’s physical shape. The same predictions can also be applied to materials such as silicone or rubber, which are often used to build assistive robots.

“(Studying spaghetti works) as stepping stones to much more complicated things,” O’Reilly said in a Berkeley News article. “It forces you to think about things differently.”

This discovery also revealed the extent to which small findings can be explained and translated into mathematics, O’Reilly and Goldberg said in an American Physical Society press release.

Additionally, while O’Reilly and Goldberg are not planning to further study spaghetti, they are continuing to study how rods interact with different surfaces, according to the release.

Contact Audry Jeong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @audryjng_dc.