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Researchers develop artificial muscle fibers capable of mimicking human muscles

When compared to present actuators, the proposed copolymer muscle fibers outperform them in various areas, including efficiency (75.5%), actuation strain (80%), and mechanical characteristics (strain-at-break of up to 900%). (Credit: istockphoto; CreVis)

According to a new study published in Nature Nanotechnology, a research group from the University of Texas at Austin has developed a new type of fiber that can operate like an artificial muscle and is far superior than current alternatives. All the more impressive, these muscle-like fibers are simple to create and easily recyclable.

Co-author of the paper and associate engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Manish Kumar, shared his thoughts with Cockrell School of Engineering News, stating, “You can basically build a limb from these fibers in a robot that responds to stimuli and returns power, instead of using a mechanical motor to do this, and that’s good because then it will have a softer touch.”

In comparison to current fibers, the team of researchers demonstrated that these fibers, which they found while engaged on another project, are more efficient and capable of handling more strain.

Robert Hickey, another co-author of the paper explained the significance of the findings, “Actuators are any material that will change or deform under any external stimuli, like parts of a machine that will contract, bend, or expand….and for technologies like robotics, we need to develop soft, lightweight versions of these materials that can basically act as artificial muscles. Our work is really about finding a new way to do this.”

The clinical applications of this muscle fiber include incorporation into an assistive exoskeleton to aid people rehabilitating arms and legs to regain mobility and strength. The artificial fiber could also have surgical applications, acting as a type of biodegradable “self-closing bandage.”

The scientists determined that their fibers were 75% more effective than conventional actuators at transferring energy to movement, could bear 80% more strain, and could twist with greater torque. It can also extend to almost 900% of its original size before breaking.

Dr. Manish Kumar added that, “The ease of making these fibers from the polymer and their recyclability are very important, and it’s an aspect that much of the other complicated artificial muscle research doesn’t cover.”

The research team plans to further assess the polymer’s structural changes and improve on the material’s strength and flexibility.

The study was published in Nature Nanotechnology on June 2nd, 2022.

Abstract. High-performance actuating materials are necessary for advances in robotics, prosthetics and smart clothing. Here we report a class of fibre actuators that combine solution-phase block copolymer self-assembly and strain-programmed crystallization. The actuators consist of highly aligned nanoscale structures with alternating crystalline and amorphous domains, resembling the ordered and striated pattern of mammalian skeletal muscle. The reported nanostructured block copolymer muscles excel in several aspects compared with current actuators, including efficiency (75.5%), actuation strain (80%) and mechanical properties (for example, strain-at-break of up to 900% and toughness of up to 121.2 MJ m−3). The fibres exhibit on/off rotary actuation with a peak rotational speed of 450 r.p.m. Furthermore, the reported fibres demonstrate multi-trigger actuation (heat and hydration), offering switchable mechanical properties and various operating modes. The versatility and recyclability of the polymer fibres, combined with the facile fabrication method, opens new avenues for creating multifunctional and recyclable actuators using block copolymers.

Lang, C., Lloyd, E.C., Matuszewski, K.E. et al. Nanostructured block copolymer muscles. Nat. Nanotechnol. (2022).

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