In a recent study published in the journal Science, computer engineering professor John Madden and PhD candidate Seyed Mohammad Mirvakili from the University of British Columbia (UBC) spoke about creating powerful artificial muscles using only fishing wire. Along with a team of international researchers, Madden and Mirvakili tightly wove high-strength polymer fibres made from polyethylene and nylon into coils capable of contracting and relaxing.
What makes these artificial muscles so revolutionary is their strength. Madden told UBC that, “In terms of the strength and power of the artificial muscle, we found that it can quickly lift weights 100 times heavier than a same-sized human muscle can, in a single contraction. It also has a higher power output for its weight than that of an automobile combustion engine.”
This finding represents a huge leap forward in the quest to develop strong and reliable artificial muscles. In the past, researchers from the University of Texas attempted the same feat, but with carbon nanotube wires. Carbon nanotube wiring is not only extremely expensive, but it’s also incredibly difficult to work with. Fishing line, on the other hand, costs about $5 per kilogram and is much easier to work with.
Changes in temperature cause the fibres to contract and relax thereby exerting force. This temperature change can be brought on in a number of ways, including the absorption of light or the chemical reaction of fuels. To see this concept in action, researchers created a video of the muscles powering surgical forceps.
Robotics of the present relies on heavy and bulky motors to create movement, limiting their practicality. As Ray Baughman, study co-author explains at the University of Texas at Dallas news release, “Today's most advanced humanoid robots, [artificial] limbs and wearable exoskeletons are limited by motors and hydraulic systems, whose size and weight restrict dexterity."
This discovery will push robotics-of-the-future past any size or dexterity related issues. In fact, researchers claim potential applications now range from robotics, exoskeletons and prosthetics, to improving fine movement capabilities in robotic microsurgery. Eventually the muscles could be used to power microchips and relay the sensation of touch from the robotic hand to the human hand. But don’t expect these advances to come instantly.