New Artificial Muscles Are Powerhouses

New Designs Are More Than 100 Times Stronger Than Natural Muscle

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 16, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

March 16, 2006 -- The latest artificial muscles make natural muscles look like weaklings, according to a study in Science.

Researchers invented two types of artificial muscles that use high-energy chemical fuels -- such as methanol and hydrogen -- instead of batteries. The inventions can outwork natural muscles, with one design showing 100 times the strength of natural muscles.

The scientists included Von Howard Ebron, PhD, and Ray Baughman, PhD. Both work at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The invention should lead to powerful devices that truly "keep on going," states a journal editorial. But the new muscles don't yet give the "exquisite control" needed for tasks like catching and throwing balls, the editorial also notes.

Unplugging Artificial Muscles

Artificial muscles and electrical motors in robots and prosthetic limbs "are typically battery powered, which severely restricts the duration of their performance and can necessitate long inactivity during battery recharge," write Ebron and colleagues.

"Because of high electrical power needs, some of the most athletically capable robots cannot freely prance around because they are wired to a stationary power source," the scientists add.

Their artificial muscles work differently, tapping chemical energy in fuels instead of relying on batteries. One model converts chemical energy in fuels to electrical energy for movement or storage. The other model mixes fuel and oxygen to create heat for energy.

The latter version is "especially easy to deploy in robotic devices," Baughman says in a news release. "Students and scientists of all ages will be working on optimizing and deploying our artificial muscles," he predicts.

"The approach is not without challenges, but it could transform the way complex mechanical systems are built," writes editorialist John D. Madden, PhD. Madden works at Canada's University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Developing fine control over such artificial muscles is one of those challenges, Madden notes.

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SOURCES: Ebron, V. Science, March 17, 2006; vol 311: pp 1580-1557. Madden, J. Science, March 17, 2006; vol 311: pp 1557-1558. News release, University of Texas at Dallas. News release, Science.
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