Polymer-based muscles offer better capabilities than hydraulic mechanism currently used in robots

New 'artificial muscle' carries 80 times its weight

A new artificial muscle created by the National University of Singapore (NUS) researchers sets new limits for robots with superhuman skills.

Lifting up to 80 times its own weight and stretching up to five times its original length, the artificial muscle beats the nature’s weight-lifting champion – the ant, famously capable to carry over 20 times its weight.

“Our materials mimic those of the human muscle, responding quickly to electrical impulses, instead of slowly for mechanisms driven by hydraulics,” said Adrian Koh from NUS’s Engineering Science Programme and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Robots using hydraulic mechanism are rather clumsy, moving in a jerky fashion. Use of advanced polymers, however, could equip the machines with more human-like motion.

“Artificial muscles, which are pliable, extendable and react in a fraction of a second like those of a human, will be able to function in a more human-like manner – and outperform humans in strength,” Koh said.

So far, artificial muscles have been capable of only limited extension, up to three times the original length, and could carry load of less than a half their weight, similarly to humans.  

Apart from super-human abilities, the new artificial muscles can also convert kinetic energy into electricity, providing the robot with an independent and sustainable source of power. 

“As the muscles contract and expand, they are capable of converting mechanical energy into electrical energy,” Koh explained. “Due to the nature of this material, it is capable of packing a large amount of energy in a small package. We calculated that if one were to build an electrical generator from these soft materials, a 10kg system is capable of producing the same amount of energy of a one-ton electrical turbine,” he said.

Initially the team has calculated the theoretical basis for the project, estimating that muscles made of polymers could potentially stretch up to 10 times their original length and lift 500 times their weight. Even though they have so far achieved their goal only partially, their invention is the first in the field.

The team believes polymer-based muscles could pave the way not only to greener robots, but could also be used in construction and other areas.

“Think of how efficient cranes can get when armed with such muscles,” Koh said.

The research team plans to work further with researchers from materials science, mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, as well as bioengineering to create robots and robotic limbs which are more human-like in both function and appearance.

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