Elastic Movements in Nature, Robotics and Materials

Some animals can use elastic energy to drive repeatable, ultra-fast motion. For example, some species of mantis shrimp can accelerate their hammer-like appendages 10,000 g's of acceleration, reaching speeds of up to 65 mph (underwater!). These organisms outperform engineered systems of a comparable size, and therefore provide an opportunity to guide improvements in micro-robotics. We have recently uncovered some of the key mechanical principles of these types of organisms. Typically, slow muscle contractions store elastic energy into spring-like elements. A biological latch is used to hold the energy and mediate a sudden unloading of the spring-like elements, delivering energy at extraordinary rates that circumvents power limitations of direct muscle-driven motion.

Our team, the Physics of Soft Matter Lab (posmlab), works with our collaborators in biology, materials science, and robotics to further develop our understanding of elastically-driven systems.

We are always looking for students to join the group in the school year for academic credit, with the possibility of continuing on as a paid researcher in the summer. Students get involved with posmlab by starting in one of our subteams:

Mathematical Modeling Team - Students on this team are typically interested in physics, biology, applied math, or computer science. This team develops simplified mathematical models of spring-driven systems (for example, in our group's recently published paper Cook et al 2022). 

Materials Team - Students on the materials team are typically interested in engineering, physics, or chemistry. This team synthesizes novel elastic materials and performs mechanical properties measurements to understand the upper limits of elastic performance in materials. We also study elastic biological materials like tendon to understand their performance. We presented some of our ongoing materials work at this year's American Physical Society March Meeting (Kim et al 2022).  

Robotics Team - Students on this team are usually interested in in engineering or physics. The robotics team designs and tests elastic mechanisms to use as physical models and gain a deeper understanding of trade-offs in spring-driven systems. We presented some of our experimental work in this area in the Robophysics session at the American Physical Society March Meeting (Krishnan et al 2022). 


Essay Prompt - What interests you about this research and what do you hope to get out of the research experience? Which subteam(s) are you most interested in joining? Why?

Name of research group, project, or lab
Physics of Soft Matter Lab (posmlab)
Why join this research group or lab?

You will be part of a team of HMC students working on a set of related projects at the intersection between physics, materials science, biology, and robotics. You will collaborate with other research groups in these disciplines across the country (collaborators at Duke, Carnegie Mellon, University of Hawaii, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and you will get the opportunity to regularly present your work to a larger team. Collectively, we are working on understanding these ultra-fast elastic systems, which will have impact in the fields of evolutionary biology and micro-robotic design.

Representative publication
Logistics Information:
Project categories
Materials Science
Soft Matter Physics
Student ranks applicable
Student qualifications

This research is accessible for all academic levels and requires only some introductory mechanics and computer programming to start. 

Helpful coursework includes (but not requirements): Ph24, Ph50, Ph111; CS 5, CS60, CS70, CS 144/MATH 164; E79; BIO 101, 183

The most important qualifications are a curiosity about the natural world and an appreciation for multiple scientific disciplines.

Time commitment
Fall - Part Time
Spring - Part Time
Academic Credit
Number of openings
Techniques learned

Some skills and techniques that you will develop include: numerical/computational methods, model development, data processing, mechanical properties measurements, high speed videography, scientific communication.

Contact Information:
Mark Ilton
Name of project director or principal investigator
Mark Ilton
Email address of project director or principal investigator
3 sp. | 15 appl.
Hours per week
Fall - Part Time (+1)
Fall - Part TimeSpring - Part Time
Project categories
Biology (+7)
BiologyChemistryEngineeringPhysicsBiomechanicsMaterials ScienceRoboticsSoft Matter Physics