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Water-powered suction cups let people climb walls like Spider-Man

Water-Vortex Suction Device

Sing along with me: “Spider-Man, Spider-Man // Does whatever a spider can // He can climb, as you can see // With vacuum suction cups from Zhejiang University.”

OK, so those aren’t the exact lyrics of the classic Spider-Man animated series. But they certainly sum up a recent project coming out of one of China’s top universities. Researchers there have developed special vacuum suction units that can reportedly let humans climb walls, even when the surface is roughly textured. The results could be used to empower future climbing robots, robotic arms with grasping capabilities, and, well, presumably arachnid-inspired superheroes avenging the death of their beloved Uncle Ben.

The innovative suction unit differs from previous vacuum suction devices, which are unable to grip on rough surfaces. It does this by using something called a zero-pressure difference (ZPD) method, utilizing a high-speed rotating water ring between the surface and suction cup. The centrifugal force of the rotating water helps the suction device maintain its vacuum.

Xin Li

In addition to the crucial quality of improved grip, the new ZPD suction unit is also reportedly more energy-efficient, smaller, and lighter than alternative suction devices. As the researchers write in the abstract for a paper describing their work:

“Experiments showed that a 0.8-kg ZPD suction unit generated a suction force of over 245 N on rough surfaces with a power consumption of less than 400 W. In contrast, a traditional suction unit of the same size would need a vacuum pump consuming several kilowatts and weighing dozens of kilograms to generate a similar suction force because of severe vacuum leakage.”

According to Xin Li, one of the researchers on the project, the next step in the research is to further cut down on water consumption. “If the water consumption can be reduced, the suction unit will work for a very long time with little water so that the wall-climbing robot could carry its own water instead of being connected to a supply,” Li said in a statement.

A paper describing the work, titled “Vacuum suction unit based on the zero pressure difference method,” was recently published in the journal Physics of Fluids. Which is not, as it turns out, part of the Marvel Comics empire.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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