The microfiber actuators on the metal mesh collector (top left), under SEM (bottom left), under heat activation (top right), and integrated into an artificial arm (bottom right). | Credit: Qiguang He et al./Science Robotics
Topics: Materials Science, Mechanical Engineering, Nanotechnology, Robotics
A new artificial fiber spun from a polymer called liquid crystal elastomer (LCE) using high-voltage electricity replicates the strength, responsiveness, and power density of human muscle fibers, scientists report. When powered by heat or near-infrared light, the fibers pulled upward and downward or oscillated back and forth.
"Our work may open up an avenue to build soft robotics or soft machines using liquid crystal elastomers as the actuator," the authors write in their paper, published in the August 25 issue of Science Robotics.
When applied to a variety of potential applications, the fiber actuators successfully controlled the pinching motion of a micro-tweezer, directed the movement of a microswimmer and a tiny artificial arm, and pumped fluids into a light-powered microfluidic pump.
Inspired by the utility of tiny fibers in nature, scientists sought to create artificial fibers that could also serve as ubiquitous tools in robotics, as sensors or assistive devices, for example. In the past few years, researchers succeeded in constructing fiber actuators driven by heat or light that are as strong and flexible as natural fibers. However, many of these artificial threads respond to their stimulus very slowly, due to their large size or complex actuation processes. When fibers can respond quickly, there's a trade-off in size or quality; for example, micro-yarns made of carbon nanotubes are fast actuators but aren't as strong as other fibers.
"Animal muscle fiber exhibits superior mechanical properties and actuation performance," said senior author Shengqiang Cai, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, San Diego. "Only a few existing materials show similar actuation behaviors as animal muscle, and the fabrication of fibers from those materials with a size and quality comparable to muscle fiber is not easy."
Electrically Spun Artificial Fibers Match Performance of Human Muscle Fibers, Juwon Song, American Association for the Advancement of Science