In recent years, researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas and colleagues at the University of Wollongong in Australia have put a high-tech twist on the ancient art of fiber spinning, using modern materials to create ultra-strong, powerful, shape-shifting yarns.

Team of scientists at UT Dallas’ Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute describes the path to developing a new class of artificial muscles made from highly twisted fibers of various materials, ranging from exotic carbon nanotubes to ordinary nylon thread and polymer fishing line.

Because the artificial muscles can be made in different sizes and configurations, potential applications range from robotics and prosthetics to consumer products such as smart textiles that change porosity and shape in response to temperature.

“We call these actuating fibers ‘artificial muscles’ because they mimic the fiber-like form-factor of natural muscles,” said Dr. Carter Haines, associate research professor in the NanoTech Institute and co-lead author of the PNAS article, with research associate Dr. Na Li. “While the name evokes the idea of humanoid robots, we are very excited about their potential use for other practical applications, such as in next-generation intelligent textiles.”

Twisting the thread or fishing line orients the polymer molecules into helices, producing torsional – or rotational – artificial muscles that can spin a heavy rotor more than 100,000 revolutions per minute.

When these muscles are so highly twisted that they coil like an over-twisted rubber band, they can produce tensile actuation, where the muscle dramatically contracts along its length when heated, and returns to its initial length when cooled. That research, published in 2014, showed that simple, low-cost muscles made from fishing line can lift 100 times more weight and generate 100 times higher mechanical power than a human skeletal muscle of the same length and weight.

Li said one potential application for the spiral-shaped coil might be thermally responsive clothing. Instead of a down-filled jacket, a coat that incorporates many small coils could change the loft and insulating power of the garment in response to temperature.


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