A team of research engineers from Singapore have created an artificial muscle made from polymer fibers which has achieved record levels of functional strength in the field of robotics, in a development which could radically enhance the capabilities of automated technologies used in manufacturing, mining and other areas

The team from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Engineering modeled their artificial muscle on the human anatomy, instead of attempting to improve on existing hydraulic mechanical systems.

“Our materials mimic those of the human muscle, responding quickly to electrical impulses, instead of slowly for mechanisms driven by hydraulics,” said Dr. Adrian Koh, leader of the four man team of research engineers.

“Robots move in a jerky manner because of this mechanism. Now, imagine artificial  muscles which are pliable, extendable and react in a fraction of a second like those of a human. Robots equipped with such muscles will be able to function in a more human-like manner – and outperform humans in strength.”

In order to develop such muscles Dr. Koh’s team created polymers capable of being stretched to more than 10 times their original length, which results in a strain displacement of 1,000 per cent.

The project, which began in July 2012, was underpinned by a solid theoretical foundation.

“We put theory to good use. Last year we calculated theoretically that polymer muscles driven by electrical impulse could potentially have a strain displacement of 1,000 per cent, lifting a load of up to 500 times its own weight,” Dr. Koh said.

“I asked my students to strive towards this Holy Grail no matter how impossible it sounded.”

The result of their work was a robotic polymer muscle which is capable of bearing 80 times its own weight while simultaneously extending to five times its original length – a record-breaking feat in the world of robotics.

In addition to breaking strength records, the artificial muscle is a model of energy efficiency which is capable of both generating and storing electricity.

“Our novel muscles are not just strong and responsive. Their movements produce a by-product – energy,” Dr. Koh said.

“As the muscles contract and expand, they are capable of converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. 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 10 kg system is capable of producing the same amount of energy of a 1-ton electrical turbine.”

This energy generation capability means automated systems equipped with the artificial muscles could be capable of re-charging themselves following exertion.

Dr. Koh has already been recognized internationally for his landmark accomplishment, receiving the Promising International Researcher Award at the 3rd International Conference on Electromechanicaly-Active Polymer Transducers and Artificial Muscles, held in Zurich, Switzerland, in June 2013.

His team have already filed a patent for the artificial muscles, addressing in particular the materials used and the appropriate amount of electrical impulses. They hope to develop a robotic arm within the next five years, which will be half the size and weigh of a human arm yet capable of generating a commensurate amount of strength.

The new technology promises to have a major impact on the application of automated technologies to areas including manufacturing and mining, by enhancing both the strength and functional range of robotic devices.