"We think this has the potential to be the holy grail of soft robotics ," said lead study author Mishu Duduta, a graduate student at Harvard University.
Electricity is easy to store and deliver but until now, the electric fields required to power actuators in soft robots have been too high.
"This research solves a lot of the challenges in soft actuation by reducing actuation voltage and increasing energy density, while eliminating rigid components ," Duduta added in a paper published in the journal Advanced Materials.
The team built the new elastomer by combining two known materials that worked well individually -- an elastomer based on one developed at the University of California - Los Angeles that eliminated the need for rigid components , and an electrode of carbon nanotubes.
The complementary properties of these two materials enabled the new device to outperform standard dielectric elastomer actuators -the artificial muscles that move soft robots.
This type of actuator could be used in everything from wearable devices to soft grippers, laparoscopic surgical tools, entirely soft robots or artificial muscles in more complex robotics.