Researchers at MIT have found a way to produce contracting fibers that could be used as artificial muscles for robots, prosthetic limbs, or other mechanical and biomedical applications.
The fibers were developed by MIT postdoc Mehmet Kanik and MIT graduate student Sirma Örgüç, working with professors Polina Anikeeva, Yoel Fink, Anantha Chandrakasan, and C. Cem Tasan, and five others, using a fiber-drawing technique to combine two dissimilar polymers into a single strand of fiber.
The key to the process is mating together two materials that have very different thermal expansion coefficients – meaning they have different rates of expansion when they are heated. This is the same principle used in many thermostats, for example, using a bimetallic strip as a way of measuring temperature. As the joined material heats up, the side that wants to expand faster is held back by the other material. As a result, the bonded material curls up, bending toward the side that is expanding more slowly.
Using two different polymers bonded together, a very stretchable cyclic copolymer elastomer and a much stiffer thermoplastic polyethylene, Kanik, Örgüç and colleagues produced a fiber that, when stretched out to several times its original length, naturally forms itself into a tight coil. But what happened next actually came as a surprise when the researchers first experienced it. “There was a lot of serendipity in this,” Anikeeva recalls.
As soon as Kanik picked up the coiled fiber for the first time, the warmth of his hand alone caused the fiber to curl up more tightly. Following up on that observation, he found that even a small increase in temperature could make the coil tighten up, producing a surprisingly strong pulling force. Then, as soon as the temperature went back down, the fiber returned to its original length. In later testing, the team showed that this process of contracting and expanding could be repeated 10,000 times “and it was still going strong,” Anikeeva says.
The fibers can span a wide range of sizes, from a few micrometers (millionths of a meter) to a few millimeters (thousandths of a meter) in width, and can easily be manufactured in batches up to hundreds of meters long. Tests have shown that a single fiber is capable of lifting loads of up to 650x its own weight.
The fibers are made using a fiber-drawing system, which makes it possible to incorporate other components into the fiber itself. Fiber drawing is done by creating an oversized version of the material, called a preform, which is then heated to a specific temperature at which the material becomes viscous. It can then be pulled, much like pulling taffy, to create a fiber that retains its internal structure but is a small fraction of the width of the preform.
Such fibers could find uses as actuators in robotic arms, legs, or grippers, and in prosthetic limbs, where their slight weight and fast response times could provide a significant advantage.
Some prosthetic limbs today can weigh as much as 30 lb, with much of the weight coming from actuators, which are often pneumatic or hydraulic; lighter-weight actuators could thus make life much easier for those who use prosthetics. Such fibers might also find uses in tiny biomedical devices, such as a medical robot that works by going into an artery and then being activated.