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UT Dallas Develops Artificial Muscle With Superhero Powers

At the University of Texas at Dallas, nanotech scientists are lifting weights using artificial muscles. The military-funded research could be the next battlefield breakthrough for those in uniform and those at home.

At the University of Texas at Dallas NanoTech Institute, Dr. Ray Baughman leads a team making artificial muscles. We’re not talking big, green Incredible Hulk muscles. The nanotech strands of yarn Dr. Baughman is making in the lab are about twice the width of a human hair. But they pack a superhero punch.

“Using our carbon nanotubes in a very special configuration, we can make artificial muscles that are about 200 times stronger than the same size natural muscle,” said Baughman.

The individual carbon nanotubes link to each other are twisted and twisted until coils from along the length of the yarn. Then the secret ingredient is added: candle wax. When the wax-filled yarn is heated the super-strong nanomuscle expands and contracts like a bicep curling a dumbbell.

Dr. Baughman says this research is principally funded by the U.S. Air Force.

Credit UT Dallas
UT Dallas
UT Dallas researchers have made artificial muscles from carbon nanotube yarns filled with paraffin wax and twisted until coils form along their length.

“The Air Force’s interest is muscles that can morph the wings of aircraft to therefore provide more efficient flight, more complicated maneuverability,” said Baughman.

And there’s the possibility of an exoskeleton for soldiers that could dramatically increase strength and capability. For the rest of us, Dr. Baughman says the teeny-tiny nanomuscle strands of yarn could be woven or sewn into fabrics.

“We have an aging population,” Baughman noted. “Artificial muscles are needed to provide, for example, garments that can reinforce the feeble efforts of an aged, infirm person in order to provide mobility, for example.”

The so-called intelligent textiles could possibly be used in new suits for firefighters. The fabric would become less porous as heat increased and that would add protection. The same application could be used against toxic chemicals. Baughman says another possible application may be artificial muscles inside very thin catheters that could be used in surgery.

“To provide complicated type of mechanical motion that enable sophisticated surgery using minimally invasive method,” said Baughman.

Baughman says the big challenge is making the nanotech yarn strands long enough to accomplish larger applications. He says use of artificial muscles is still in the primitive stage, but promising, very promising.

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.