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Dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) are a class of polymeric actuators that have gained prominence over the last decade. A DEA is comprised of a polymer sandwiched between two compliant electrodes. When voltage is applied between the two electrodes, electrostatic attraction between the electrodes compresses the elastomer in that direction and stretches it in the other two directions. DEAs produce dimensional changes (strains) up to 300% upon application of an electric field. DEAs have tremendous potential for applications requiring large displacements and have been demonstrated for many macro-scale (centimeter and larger) applications such as robots, loudspeakers, and motors.

There are potentially many useful applications for micro-scale DEAs (less than millimeter-sized devices with micron-sized actuators) in the fields of micro-robotics, micro-optics, and micro-fluidics. However, miniaturization of DEAs is challenging because many of the materials and DEA fabrication methods used on the macro-scale cannot be adapted for micro-scale fabrication of DEAs. This thesis explores the feasibility of developing fabrication strategies for micro-scale DEAs by adapting micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology. In addition, fabrication protocols for micro-scale DEAs have been developed.

The other aspect of this thesis is the design of bending DEAs. Benders are useful because for a given actuation strain, greater deflection can be observed by controlling the stiffnesses and thicknesses of different layers. A general guideline for designing bending DEA configurations such as unimorph, bimorph, and multilayer stacks was developed using a multilayer analytical model. The design optimization is based on the effect of thickness and stiffness of different layers on curvature, blocked force, and work.

Complaint electrodes and their design are important for DEAs to enable the elastomer to stretch unrestricted. Thus, design criteria for the fabrication of crenellated electrodes and crenellated elastomers with electrodes were investigated. This guideline enabled design of structures with appropriate axial or bending stiffnesses based on the amplitude, angle, length, and thickness. Simple analytical equations for axial and bending stiffness for crenellated electrodes with different shapes were derived. In addition, numerical simulations of crenellated elastomer with stiff electrode were performed