What are Fuel Powered Artificial Muscles?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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Fuel-powered artificial muscles refers to an advance in robotics and engineering by researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas NanoTech Institute and Pusan National University in Korea. The effort was led by Dr. Ray Baughman, with help from DARPA. The creation of the fuel-powered artificial muscles was announced on March 16th, 2006, and the peer-reviewed paper describing the technology was published in the prestigious journal Science the next day.

The fuel-powered artificial muscles are claimed to be based on nanotechnology because they use carbon nanotube electrodes to convert chemical energy to mechanical energy, and employ nanoparticle catalysts. The first attempt at nanotech-based fuel-powered artificial muscles was a "cantilever-based nanotube fuel-cell muscle". The cantilever portion contained a strip of nanotubes that are covered with the ionic polymer Nafion and platinum-coated carbon.

As well as actuating the muscle, the cantilever was submerged in electrolytic sulfuric acid and served as the cathode of the fuel cell which powered it. Another electrode separated the electrolyte from the hydrogen fuel. The activated fuel cell resulted in the injection of electron holes throughout the cantilever, which contracted it through quantum and electrostatic effects. The resulting fuel-powered artificial muscle was relatively weak, but interesting from the perspective of experimentation.


The next attempt would result in the fuel-powered artificial muscle which would make the team famous around the world. The new muscle incorporated memory wire coated with nanoparticles of platinum catalyst, and achieved actuation through producing a constant short circuit, which led it to heat up and bend. The resulting fuel-powered artificial muscle could run on methanol vapor, hydrogen, or formic acid vapor and contracted with 500 times the stress-generation capability of human muscle. Because it could only contract by 5%, or about four times less than human muscle, it was said to have roughly 100X human muscle capability.

A robot built from this fuel-powered artificial muscle could toss heavy electric batteries in favor of chemical fuels, which carry superior energy per unit weight. The team even went so far as to suggest the integration of future variants into human subjects, dropping platinum catalysts for enzymes capable of exploiting energy sources in the human bloodstream. This could lead to cyborgs 100 times stronger than conventional humans.


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