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At MIT, researchers have figured out how to make artificial muscles that better mimic how their human counterparts work. These muscles, which have applications in the automobile, aerospace, and robotics industries, aren’t made of graphene or other exotic new materials such as carbon nanotubes—they’re made of nylon.
The nylon fibers used in this research have an interesting property: When heated, they contract in length while increasing in diameter. By selectively heating these nylon fibers, researchers can then force it to bend, similar to the way human muscle fibers work. Nylon had previously been used to mimic simple linear muscle properties, but with this technique, it could be used for artificial fingers and limbs that bend.
Scientists were even able to use this technique to get muscle fibers to move in more complicated patterns, such as circles or figure eights. The fibers can be heated in a variety of different ways, including through a chemical reaction or by shining a lasers on a section of the nylon filament.
This new nylon-based system, which is simple and inexpensive to manufacture compared to existing artificial muscle alternatives, could eventually be used to make better biomedical devices, robotic grippers, and other applications. For example, it could also be used to make clothes and shoes that better conform to our bodies.
Andrew Taberner, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, calls the research “exciting and game-changing.”
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.