It looks like we’re one step closer to making science fiction a reality with a team of UCLA and the research institute SRI International creating artificial muscles that are superior to human muscles. The researchers say the new material is up to 10 times more flexible than biological muscles with the ability to generate more force. As thin as a human hair and almost as light, a film of high-performance dielectric elastomer (PHDE) is stacked between the electrodes, and the film layers together behave like natural muscles, generating enough energy to power sensors and small robots.
What are the potential uses for muscle? Professor Qibing Pei from UCLA says: “This flexible, versatile and efficient actuator could open the door to artificial muscles in new generations of robots or in sensors and wearable technologies that can more accurately mimic or even enhance human movements and abilities.” This could include touch-sensing wearables worn on the skin or as support in the case of artificial limbs.
A material that is soft, flexible, and able to withstand stress while providing mechanical output is nothing new; dielectric elastomers (DE) have been around since the late 1990s. But most DEs are made of silicone or acrylic. Silicone DEs don’t hold up as well under heavy load, and while acrylic DEs do better under tension, they are less flexible than the new PHDEs, which are an improvement on acrylic-based DEs. The strength of DE and PHDE is that they can be used as actuators, allowing machines to operate by converting electrical energy into mechanical work.
What can these new PHDE actuators do? Research has shown that the material can throw a ball that is 20 times the weight of the films, expand and contract in response to an electric current, and they have the ability to bend, roll and rotate with a flexibility that mimics the movement of the legs of a spider. This gives us an idea of how these artificial muscles might move among us in the future.