Carbon Nanotube Muscles

Ray Baughman has created a carbon nanotube muscle that is light as air, stiffer than steel and more flexible than rubber.

"The big strength with the present muscles is that they can operate over this enormous temperature range," said Ray Baughman, an author of a paper describing the material, which will be published in Friday's issue of Science.

When a voltage is applied, charge is injected into the material, causing repulsion that pushes the nanotubes apart. That causes the material to expand dramatically in width and thickness, but contract in the length direction.

The change in length is only two per cent, but can generate more than 30 times higher stress than natural muscle for its weight, Baughman said.

"Think of a wine rack.… If the wine rack is almost fully collapsed, you pull a little bit in the direction which you elongate when it's fully collapsed and you get a giant strain perpendicular, in terms of per cent."

"We can generate about 30 times the force per unit area of natural muscle," said Baughman.


(Illustration of carbon nanotube muscle expansion)
At left is the artificial muscle with no voltage applied. When a voltage is applied, the material expands in width, as shown in the middle (room temperature) and right (high temperature) images.

If this technology can be made to work, it could provide a more space-efficient way for robots to flex their muscles. The earliest application will probably be in solar cells; the carbon nanotube 'muscles' can easily block or let in sunlight for optimal light-sensitive arrangements.

Besides the robotic applications, a reader suggested that they might be a fit for micro-louvered windows in Frank Herbert's Dune series, but I can't find the reference. Anyone?

Update 19-Oct-2011: Martin Caidin specifically uses this term in his 1972 novel Cyborg, which was the basis for the film Six Million Dollar Man; see the entry for artificial muscles. End update.

Update 02-Apr-2014: See the entry for Quasi-Muscles (Sham Musculature) from HG Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. End update.

Via CBC and Wired. Thanks to an anonymous reader for this contribution.

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