PhD programmes - Science and Technology
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Home > Proposed research topics > 2018 - 34th cycle Department of excellence

2018 - 34th cycle Department of excellence


Variable impedance actuators based on composite elastomers for advanced robotics

P.I.: Marco Fontana, Luca Zaccarian, Devid Maniglio (UniTN), G.K. Lau (NTU)

Foreign partner institution: Nanyang Technological University-NTU (Singapore)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome
Recent researches in Robotics aim at the development of a new class of systems that features intrinsic compliant mechanical response to guarantee safety and reliability in their interaction with environment and with human operators. In this context, new solutions are sought for actuation systems featuring adaptable mechanical impedance in order to guarantee variable/programmable response. The objective of this project is to study innovative variable impedance actuators (VIA) for advanced robotic systems that are able to effectively adjust/adapt their response to uneven/unpredictable loading conditions.
The candidate will be studying new architectures/designs of actuators and force/torque transmission systems that are based on pneumatic/hydraulic networks combined with advanced composite and smart material systems. Target applications includes robotic exoskeletons, humanoid robots and other advanced robots that are specifically conceived for interacting with humans and/or with unstructured environments.
Keywords: Variable Impedance Actuators (VIA); Pneumatic Networks, Composite
Elastomer; Variable Stiffness

More info: Asst. Prof. Marco Fontana email: marco.fontana-2 [at]
Transversality of the project
Areas of research that are involved in this PhD project:

  • mechanical engineering;
  • bioengineering;
  • mechatronics and control;
  • materials engineering.


One step bioprinting of complex hierarchical biological tissues:  intervertebral disc

P.I.: Antonella Motta, Sandra Dire’ (UniTN), Rui L. Reis (University of Minho)
Foreign partner institution: University of Minho (Portugal)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome
The research focuses on the optimization of bioprinting methods for the fabrication of biomedical prostheses by using cells loaded hydrogels, and in particular for the fabrication in a single step of an intervertebral disc scaffold/substitute constructs.
Constructs should recapitulate the main properties/architecture/etc. of a healthy intervertebral disc while inducing a specific cellular activity and tissue regeneration in situ.
Polymeric hydrogels based bioinks should be investigated and functionalized with biological moieties to better trigger and drive cellular metabolism and activity considering the above define aim. Moreover, studies will regard the bioink optimization in terms of processability, mechanical properties, rheological properties, degradation kinetics, and so on.
The research activity will be developed for two years at the Department of Industrial Engineering of the University of Trento and for one year at the 3Bs group, University of Minho, Portugal.

Transversality of the project
The project requires collaboration in different areas of the Department with main focus on biomaterials, chemistry, polymers science and engineering, regenerative medicine&tissue engineering.


Measurement of physio-mechanical parameters for regenerative vertebral prosthesis and human posture optimization

P.I.: Mariolino De Cecco, Antonella Motta (UniTN), Keiichi Yasumoto or Hirokazu
Kato (NAIST, Japan)
Foreign partner institution: Nara Institute of Science and Technology-NAIST (Japan)

Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome
This PhD program aims to develop an enabling technology for the “spinal care” in a holistic way: i) Vertebra and intervertebral disc regenerative prosthesis development will be considered together with ii) human posture optimization to maximise spinal health.
Main goals will start from the design of an in vitro testing simulator to the development of Augmented Reality strategies based on real-time posture measurement.
Research objectives:

1. Measurement of physical parameters in mechanical stimulation enabled bioreactor culture condition and orthoses related parameters;
2a. Measurement of human body posture fed back in Augmented Reality to provide a feedback to the user that bear a vertebral implant to optimize his/her posture also taking into account parameters coming from sensors in the implant zone and  orthoses stress;
2b. Development of adaptive furniture to optimize the human posture according to measurements of body posture, in vivo biological parameters and orthoses stress. Note: 2a and 2b are in alternative and thus left to the will of the student (two different international co-tutors have proposed their will to contribute to the PhD project).

Transversality of the project
The project foresees competences of measurement (mechatronics area) and bioengineering (and materials area).
The colleagues involved are: Claudio Migliaresi, Antonella Motta, Devid Maniglio, Giandomenico Nollo, Paolo Bosetti.


Maintenance policy optimization in the Industry 4.0 paradigm

P.I.: Matteo Brunelli, Dario Petri, Paolo Bosetti (UniTN), Mikael Collan (Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland)
Foreign partner institution: Lappeenranta University of Technology (Finland)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome
The research will consist of some phases/objectives:

  • a preliminary and comparative study of optimization problems for the maintenance of industrial plans and technologies. In particular, “grouping” and “opportunistic” policies will be examined;
  • development of new models for “predictive” maintenance according to the principles of Industry 4.0. Particular attention will be given to the process of information acquisition from sensors and techniques of numerical aggregation, also based on artificial intelligence;
  • validation of the approach with a real-world case.

Transversality of the project

The project will be rooted in the Industry 4.0 paradigm and given the importance of maintenance activities for any industrial system, it will necessarily involve/interest other members of the department. Transversality emerges from the competences required to achieve the objectives of the project: operation research, automation and industrial systems, measures and informatics.


Optical Flexible Biocompatible Sensors – OPTIFLEBS

P.I.: Alberto Quaranta, Lucio Pancheri, Devid Maniglio (UniTN), Vamsi Yadavalli (Virginia Commonwealth University)  
Foreign partner institution: Virginia Commonwealth University (USA)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome

The aim of the research activity is to realize biocompatible flexible optical sensors based on an architecture of optical waveguides (OWG). OWGs are connected through optical fibers to an input system of LEDs and an output read out array detecting the changes of the light signals induced by the interaction with the physical or chemical quantities to be detected.
Such kind of architecture is suitable for several applications, ranging from robotics to medical diagnostic. For instance, pressure fields on the waveguides can induce signal losses which can be detected and whose amplitude can be used as a measurement of the external pressure.
In the present project, the structure will be exploited mainly as a flexible biosensor for specific biomarkers appearing during inflammation, cellular disease or cancer. For the detection the OWGs surface will be functionalized with specific biomolecules suitable for grafting the desired biomarker.
The grafting can be detected through the change of the surface refractive index, the development of optical absorption features at specific wavelength or the luminescence quenching of fluorescent dyes at the OWG surface.
The main novelty of this activity is the synthesis and the use of new fibroin based materials. Fibroin is a biocompatible natural material for which recently a new crosslinking procedure has been developed, by the group involved in the research project, allowing the production of fibroin photoresist films. Starting from this material, new procedures for the tuning of the refractive index and for the surface functionalization can be developed in order to making the material suitable for application in the field of optical flexible sensors.
Moreover, in order to develop a multipurpose system, polysiloxane based systems will be realized in order to test the sensitivity and the feasibility of the transmission and detection set-up. Such systems could be the basis for flexible tactile sensors and may be used as support for new materials devoted to biosensing.

Transversality of the project

The research activity involves at least three areas of DII and a at the School of Engineering of the Virginia Commonwealth University. In particular, at DII the characterization lab for the optical analyses (Alberto Quaranta), the Biotech Lab (Antonella Motta and Devid Maniglio) for the synthesis of the materials and the Electronic Lab (Lucio Pancheri) for the development of the integrated structure.


Polymer-derived ceramics cellular structures from replica of 3D printed lattices for bone tissue applications

P.I.: Gian Domenico Sorarù, Antonella Motta (UniTN), Joshua Pearce (Michigan Technical University - MTU)
Foreign partner institution: Michigan Technical University - MTU (USA)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome.

  • Development and printing nano/meso-porous polyurethane cellular structures (work to be done at MTU, Prof. J. Pearce);
  • Processing of polymer derived cellular structures from replica of 3D printed lattices. Study of the infiltration process, pyrolysis conversion and characterization of the physico/chemical properties of the ceramic components (wok to be done at DII Glass and Ceramics Lab, Prof. G. D. Sorarù);
  • Biocompatibility and bioactivity evaluation of the 3D printed ceramic structures (work to be done at DII, Biotech, Prof. A. Motta);

 Transversality of the project

The research project will be at the frontier of Materials Engineering, Additive Manufacturing and Tissue Engineering.


Production of bioceramic components by P-3DP (Powder-based 3D Printing) starting from powders synthesized from natural products

P.I.: Vincenzo M. Sglavo, Antonella Motta, Paolo Bosetti (UniTN), Pranesh Aswath (University of Texas at Arlington, USA)
Foreign partner institution: University of Texas at Arlington (USA)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome
- Synthesis of bioactive/osteogenic powders from natural products (silicates and carbonates contained in marine organisms, shells, diatomeas etc.);
- Production of granules by mixing with bioglass or other additives useful for successive consolidation or biocompatibility;
- Verification of the powders bioactivity and osteogenic properties;
- Set up of a production process by P-3DP (Powder-based 3D Printing) for components suitable as bone tissue substitites;
- Fabrication of model scaffold suitable for vertebra regeneration. Transversality of the project.  Materials science and technology, Mechatronics, Bioengineering and Biotechnology.


Topic: Flexible multifunctional sensors for soft robotics

P.I.: Alessandro Pegoretti, Gian-Franco Dalla Betta (UniTN), Guilherme Barra (UFSC, Brazil)
Foreign partner institution: Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Florianopolis (Brazil)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome

The main aim is the development of flexible pressure and/or temperature sensors for soft robotics and/or actuators based on piezoelectric polymers and relative nanocomposites.
In particular, the attention will be focused on poly(vinylidene fluoride) (PVDF) and its lends with conductive polymers [1, 2] and/or nanofillers [3]. Several processing techniques will be explored to enhance the sensitivity to pressure and/or temperature variations including additive manufacturing, electrospinning, solution casting, extrusion and compression moulding.

  1. Merlini, C., Barra, G., Medeiros Araujo, T., and Pegoretti, A., Electrically pressure sensitive poly (vinylidene fluoride)/polypyrrole electrospun mats. RSC Advances, 2014. 4(30): p. 15749-15758.
  2. Merlini, C., Barra, G.M.d.O., Araujo, T.M., and Pegoretti, A., The effect of compressive stress on the electrically resistivity of poly (vinylidenefluoride)/polypyrrole blends. Synthetic Metals, 2014. 196: p. 186-192.
  3. Fakhri, P., Mahmood, H., Jaleh, B., and Pegoretti, A., Improved electroactive phase content and dielectric properties of flexible PVDF nanocomposite films filled with Au- and Cu-doped graphene oxide hybrid nanofiller. Synthetic Metals, 2016. 220: p. 653-660.
  4. Barra, G.M.O., Jacques, L.B., Orefice, R.L., and Carneiro, J.R.G., Processing, characterization and properties of conducting polyaniline-sulfonated SEBS block copolymers. European Polymer Journal, 2004. 40(9): p. 2017-2023.
  5. Muller, D., Cercena, R., Aguayo, A.J.G., Porto, L.M., Rambo, C.R., and Barra, G.M.O., Flexible PEDOT-nanocellulose composites produced by in situ oxidative polymerization for passive components in frequency filters. Journal of Materials Science-Materials in Electronics, 2016. 27(8): p. 8062-8067.

Transversality of the project

The main areas involved in the projects are “Materials Engineering” and “Electronics”. In fact, the polymeric structures will be developed in the Laboratory of Polymers and Composites of DII while part of the characterization of the investigated materials in sensing pressure and/or temperature variations will be performed in the laboratory of Electronics and Microsystems of DII, also in collaboration with FBK.


Design and development of an exoskeleton with rehabilitative functions for diseases of the spine

P.I.: Vigilio Fontanari, Mariolino De Cecco, Francesco Biral, Matteo Benedetti UniTN), Werner Schmoelz (Medical University of Innsbruck)
Foreign partner institution: Medical University of Innsbruck (Austria)
Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome

The objective of the research is the design and development of an exoskeleton with rehabilitative functions for diseases of the spine. In the design and construction of the exoskeleton, special attention must be paid to its structural functions, to the choice of materials, to the implementation and control of the movements to be imposed, accounting for the most effective loading conditions necessary for the stimulation of the regenerative process at vertebral level in presence of prosthetic interventions; The development of a protocol of use and validation by means of patient tests must therefore be envisaged, based on an efficient instrumentation for the acquisition of information at a cinematic and dynamic level. For this purpose the collaboration with the Medical University of Innsbruck as well as with a rehabilitative department of the local sanitary service (APSS) in the frame of the Ausilia research project will be activated.

Transversality of the project

The project has a high level of interdisciplinarity as it requires skills in mechanical design, stress analysis, controls and measurements of kinematic and dynamic variables, metallurgy and material science. Bioengineering and biomedical expertises are also very important to correctly approach the development of the exoskeleton. For this reason, in addition to the indicated tutors, colleagues can be involved and will contribute to different topic of the research: Ilaria Cristofolini, Alberto Molinari, Marco Fontana, Claudio Migliaresi, Antonella Motta.

Ideal candidate (skills and competencies):

  • Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, mechatronic engineering, materials engineering, biomedical engineering;
  • Experiences in the use of design tools, in the development of systems for signal acquisition and in signal processing;
  • Good knowledge of the English language;
  • The knowledge of the foundations of biomechanics, bioengineering and biomedical engineering is very important for a correct and profitable approach to the project.


Liquid-based Electro Active Polymers (LEAP) for a new class of soft actuators and generators

P.I.: Luca Fambri, Sandra Dirè, Marco Fontana (UniTN), Martin Kaltenbrunner (JKU-Linz, Austria)/ Herbert Shea (Imts -EPFLNeuchatel, Switzerland)
Foreign partner institution: Johannes Kepler University, Linz (Austria), EPFL, Soft Transducers Lab, Neuchatel (Switzerland)

Synthetic description of the activity and expected research outcome
Recent research works [1-3] have shown that dielectric fluids, with specific properties, can be combined with stretchable or flexible shell structures, made of polymeric dielectric/electrode composite films, to implement a novel type of soft electrically-driven fluidic transducers with self-healing and self-sensing capabilities.
This new class of devices can be successfully employed for the realization of actuators, generators and sensors with unprecedented performance and attributes in terms of resilience, adaptability, power-to-weight ratios, functional integration, ease of manufacturing and assembling, extremely low cost of their constituents, superior reliability and lifetime.
The object of research is the development of new type of LEAP actuators and generators based on innovative architectural solutions. The activities will include both experimental developments and theoretical studies.
Keywords: HASEL (Hydraulically Amplified Self-healing ELectrostatic actuators), DFT (Dielectric Fluid Transducers), DFG (Dielectric Fluid Generators), EAP (Electroactive Polymers), LEAP (Liquid-based Electroactive Polymers), Soft Robotics, Soft Actuators.
more info: Prof. Luca Fambri luca.fambri [at]
or Asst.Prof. Marco Fontana marco.fontana-2 [at]

[1] Duranti M., Righi M., Vertechy R. and Fontana M. 2017. "A new class of variable capacitance generators based on the dielectric fluid transducer."Smart Materials and Structures 26, no. 11 (2017): 115014.

[2] Acome E., Mitchell S.K., Morrissey T.G., Emmett M.B., Benjamin C., King M., Radakovitz M. and Keplinger, C., 2018. “Hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic actuators with musclelike performance.” Science, 359 (6371), pp.61-65.

[3] Kellaris N., Venkata V.G., Smith G.M., Mitchell S.K. and Keplinger C., 2018. “Peano-HASEL actuators: Muscle-mimetic, electrohydraulic transducers that linearly contract on activation.” Science Robotics, 3(14), p.eaar3276.

Transversality of the project
Competences on Materials Science, Chemistry and Mechatronics will be relevant in development of the project.