Many different actuator configurations based on SRI International’s dielectric elastomer (DE) type of electroactive polymer (EAP) have been developed for a variety of applications. These actuators have shown excellent actuation properties including maximum actuation strains of up to 380% and energy densities of up to 3.4 J/g, using the planar mode of actuation. Recently, SRI has investigated different configurations of DE actuators that allow complex changes in surface shape and thus the creation of active surface texture. In this configuration, the “active” polymer film is bonded or coated with a thicker passive layer, such that changes in the polymer thickness during actuation of the DE device are at least partially transferred to (and often amplified by) the passive layer. Although the device gives out-of-plane motion, it can nonetheless be fabricated using two-dimensional patterning. The result is a rugged, flexible, and conformal skin that can be spatially actuated by subjecting patterned electrodes on a polymer substrate to an electric field. Using thickness-mode DE, we have demonstrated thickness changes of the order of 0.5 - 2 mm by laminating a passive
elastomeric layer to a DE polymer that is only 60 μm in thickness. Such thickness changes would otherwise require a very large number of stacked layers of the DE film to produce comparable surface deformations. Preliminary pressures of 4.2 kPa (0.6 psi) in a direction normal to the plane of the DE film have been measured. However, theoretical calculations indicate that pressures of the order of 100 kPa are feasible using a single layer of DE film. Stacking multiple layers of DE film can lead to a further increase in achievable actuation pressures. Even with current levels of thickness change and actuation pressures, potential applications of such surface texture change are numerous. A thin, compliant pad made from these actuators can have a massaging or sensory augmentation
function, and can be incorporated into garments if desired. The bumps and troughs could act as valves or pumping elements in a fluidic or microfluidic system. Such a device could also be the basis of a smart skin that controls boundary-layer flow properties in a boat or airplane so as to reduce overall drag. The DE elements of the pad can also be used as sensors to make a touch-sensitive skin for recording human interaction with the environment. By driving a thin, compliant vibrating layer at resonant frequencies, one can also configure these devices as solid or fluidic conveyors that transport material on a macroscopic or microscopic scale.