A trio of teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Bordeaux, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have created “artificial muscles” that can heave 60 times more than human muscles, as Futurism reports. The artificial muscles use coiled bamboo and silk fibers subjected to heat changes or electrochemical alterations to slacken or tighten the fibers. This function works much the same way as their natural counterparts.
There are many potential applications for this technology. A few notable places scientists hope to use it are in prosthetic limbs, exoskeletons, and robotics. Researchers also envision applying the tech to smart clothing, with the fibers reacting to the wearer and their environment. “You could imagine such a textile could be more open or more insulating,” Sameh Tawfick from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says.
A Joint Effort
The other teams experimented with different fibers and applications. For instance, researchers at the University of Bordeaux used polymer graphene in their artificial muscles. Polymer graphene is a material stronger than a diamond. The MIT team created a material that coils spontaneously. They then developed a robotic arm based on a human bicep. With the application of heat, the arm could then curl a weight like a bodybuilder.
These innovations in artificial muscles stem from research conducted by Ray Baughman and his team at the University of Texas in 2014. They used everyday materials like fishing line and sewing thread to create their muscle fibers. The UT researchers found that for their size, these artificial muscles could lift hundreds of times more weight than a human muscle.
There’s still a lot of experimentation needed around this new technology, mostly involving efficiency. Much of the energy applied to the artificial muscles dissipates. The fibers absorb only about three percent of it.
With more research, the technology could be an invaluable innovation for artificial limbs and other technology that uses nanofibers. For example, when muscles and tendons suffer injury, patients often have to immobilize the affected area.
“When you repair muscle or tendon, you really have to fix their movement for a period of time, by wearing a boot, for example,” MIT researcher Ming Guo says. “With this nanofiber yarn, the hope is, you won’t have to [be] wearing anything like that.”
Furthermore, the nanofibers consist of biocompatible materials. “We may be able to one day embed these structures under the skin, and the [coil] material would eventually be digested, while the new cells stay put,” Guo says. “The nice thing about this method is, it’s really general, and we can try different materials. This may push the limit of tissue engineering a lot.”
Overall, the promising aspects of artificial muscles and nanofibers are their myriad applications. From the medical field to robotics, these new technologies will no doubt play a huge role in improving and enhancing the lives of human beings in the future.