B.C. Industry News

Vancouver Sun – Artificial muscles created at UBC are 100 times stronger than a human’s: study

February 24, 2014

Vancouver-based team has created a threaded coil that is powerful and easy to make

By Mike Hager, Vancouver Sun

What if simple nylon fishing line could produce cheap artificial muscles that could one day be used for incredibly breathable clothing, less invasive microsurgeries and even robots with softer, human-like muscles?

University of B.C. professor and biomedical engineer John Madden said that reality may be closer than we think after his international team discovered an exciting new technology by twisting polyethylene and nylon — commonly found in fishing line and sewing thread — into tight coils that look like a heavily-twisted rubber band.

These threaded coils create contracting and relaxing artificial muscles that are 100 times stronger than their human counterparts, according to the study published in the journal Science Wednesday.

“The key advantage of these artificial muscles is that they are much more compact and lightweight,” Madden said. “It’s not only incredibly strong and powerful, but it’s really easy to make.”

The coils of fibre produce a muscle that “dramatically contracts along its length when heated and returns to its initial length when cooled,” according to a news release from the University of Texas at Dallas, which had researchers involved in the study. If that same coil is twisted in a different direction, the muscles will instead expand when it’s heated.

These changing temperatures can be controlled by small electric heaters, absorbing the heat from light, or a fuel chemical reaction.

Most machines nowadays are powered by large electric motors. In the future, these smaller artificial muscles could do the same work without the clunky gears needed to move an arm or a lever because they produce linear and not rotational motion, Madden said.

Madden said his UBC team heated a coiled fibre less than a millimetre in diameter to lift up a two-litre plastic Coke bottle weighing two kilograms.

This cheap and simple technology could be scaled to create any number of practical applications, Madden said.

“It’s going to take a little time, as any new technology does, to adapt to applications,” he said. “But yes, I think there are going to be a lot of interesting ways of using it.”

Humanoid robots are commonly made from hard materials that are expensive and difficult to deal with, said Madden.

“If something goes wrong it could easily harm someone,” he explained. “So imagine you could have soft robots that could incorporate these artificial muscles?”

Researchers on the international team — which included academics from Australian, Chinese, American, Korean and Turkish universities — also think these muscles could be used in exoskeletons to help elderly people regain their strength and mobility and in fabrics that expand and contract to let moisture escape during activity.

Now, Madden’s team at UBC will concentrate on developing an active compression sock for people with conditions such as deep vein thrombosis. The sock could improve circulation by massaging the leg with contracting and expanding fibres woven through the sock and powered by an electric battery.


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