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Robotic muscles lift 80 times own material weight

5 Sep 2013

Dr Koh (centre) holding a piece of artificial muscle. With him are team members Research Fellow Dr Eric Li (left) and Graduate Researcher Mr Goh Yu Feng

An electrical-stimulated piece of artificial muscle created by the team could lift a load 80 times its weight
Engineers at NUS have discovered “robotic” muscles that can carry loads 80 times their own weight and stretch to five times the original length with the load. These new artificial muscles could potentially convert and store energy to power the robots after charging for less than a minute.

The feat represents a first in robotics, paving the way for the building of human-like robots with superhuman power and capability.

The team is headed by Dr Adrian Koh from NUS’ Engineering Science Programme and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

A conventional robot can lift loads only half its own weight – somewhat equivalent to an average human’s strength – owing to the limitations imposed by its muscles. Furthermore, artificial muscles are known to extend to only three times the original length when similarly stressed; the amount of extensibility also reflects the efficiency of the muscles when performing operations.

Dr Koh said: “Our materials mimic those of the human muscle, responding quickly to electrical impulses, instead of slowly for mechanisms driven by hydraulics.” He explained that robots move jerkily because of this mechanism.

By using elastic polymers which could be stretched over 10 times their original length, the researchers emulate human muscles which are pliable, extendable and react in a fraction of a second. Robots armed with such muscles are able to function in a more human-like manner.

A bonus by-product of the muscles is energy when mechanical energy turns into electrical energy. Dr Koh calculated that a 10kg electrical generator made from these materials is capable of producing the same energy of a 1-ton electrical turbine.

The team will be filing a patent for their novel materials and right degree of electric impulses. They plan to collaborate with researchers from different disciplines to create robots and robotic limbs which are more human-like in both functions and appearance.

Dr Koh received the Promising International Researcher Award at the 3rd International Conference on Electromechanically-Active Polymer Transducers and Artificial Muscles this year for his significant contributions in the field of electromechanically-active polymers, as well as promise to a successful career in the field.