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The Rise of Soft Robotics

Kwang Kim, a 2018 Distinguished Professor, work in biomedical engineering is inspiring a new generation of researchers.

People  |  Apr 10, 2018  |  By Juliet V. Casey
Portrait of Mechanical Engineering Professor Kwang J. Kim, Ph.D.

Distinguished Professor Award Recipient Kwang J. Kim, mechanical engineering.
(Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services) 

From steam-power plant condensers to a possible fix for twitchy eyes, Kwang Kim has been leading groundbreaking research to improve the capacity and life cycle of smart materials.

More recently, the NV Energy Professor of Energy and Matter has taken a multi-disciplinary turn into the field of “soft robotics,” where he and his students are developing engineering structures from materials that can function like artificial muscles.

This work, along with his leadership in UNLV’s Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering, has led to his being named a Distinguished Professor this year. It’s the university’s highest honor. And he just was inducted into the National Academy of Inventors, which recognizes outstanding contributions in areas such as licensing, innovative discovery and technology, and impact on society. Kim is the first professor from Nevada to become a National Academy of Inventors fellow. Recipients of both awards are nominated by their peers.

"Kim's research has had a significant impact on the field of biomedical engineering as well as soft robotics," said Rama Venkat, dean of the College of Engineering. "He has even been able to transition his research into useful solutions, including an active micro-catheter system that can potentially save lives. His groundbreaking and innovative research, as well as the international collaborations and industry partnerships he has forged, continue to bring prestige to the College of Engineering and UNLV."

Kim shies away from praise, preferring instead to explain the potential uses for the innovations he and his students are coming up with. One of his students, for instance, has been exploring applications of soft robotics technology to help control twitchy eyelids. Others are experimenting with possible underwater uses.

Innovative Times

“This is an exciting time,” Kim said. “We’ve gone from thinking about how we can make these materials to how we can use these materials.”

Already, Kim’s work has brought a $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, allowing his team to develop further innovations that could be applied in medicine, including robotic biomedical treatments.  He has generated three U.S. patents, three books, and more than 180 journal publications in his career.

Looking ahead, Kim said he is energized by growing interest in the field, noting that multi-disciplinary training is becoming increasingly important to succeeding in the world of soft robotics.

“The training today is quite different from when I was in school, doing pretty much traditional engineering,” he said. “Take for instance mechanics. Right now, I’m studying as much as I can and talking to as many people as I know are experts in mechanics so I can keep up.”

Given the rapid progress in soft robotics, the next realm of advancements will be in how to control the devices, using a combination of sophisticated materials and mechanics, Kim said.

“Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of people looking at this,” he said. “Now, there are lots of young people with really dynamic, progressive ideas. And that triggers more ideas for me to see how I can keep making improvements.”