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.

This summer we are hiring students to work on the mathematical modeling and materials teams:

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).  


Essay Prompt - What would you like to work on in posmlab this summer? [suggested length 200-300 words]

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, E86; BIO 101, 183

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

Preference will be given to students continuing research projects from the academic year.

Time commitment
Summer - Full Time
Paid Research
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
5 sp. | 45 appl.
Hours per week
Summer - Full Time
Project categories
Chemistry (+6)
BiologyChemistryEngineeringPhysicsBiomechanicsMaterials ScienceSoft Matter Physics