Artificial active

Engineers develop new smart textiles using artificial muscle fibers

Soft artificial muscle (SAM) research is growing rapidly, both in developing new actuation ideas and improving existing structures with multifunctionality. The human body has over 600 muscles that cause organs and joints to perform desired functions.

Inspired by human muscles, engineers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney have developed a new class of smart textiles capable of shape-shifting and transforming two-dimensional material into 3D structures. The team produced a material constructed from tiny soft artificial muscles – which are long, fluid-filled silicon tubes that are manipulated to move via hydraulics.

These artificial muscles, which are surrounded by a helical coil of traditional fibers, can be programmed to contract or expand into a variety of shapes depending on their initial structure.

The smart textile can either be attached to an existing passive material, or the artificial muscles can be interwoven with traditional tarn to create an active fabric. These smart flowing textiles take advantage of the benefits of hydraulic pressure and add the quick response, light weight, high flexibility and small size of soft artificial muscles.

In an article published in Scientific Reports, the UNSW team presented different approaches to creating smart textiles from artificial muscle fibers. Credit: UNSW

“Our smart textiles can be programmed to perform various desired movements and deformations, such as structures that change shape from 2D to 3D”, said Dr. Do, Scientia Lecturer. “This material has significant advantages because it is made from miniature soft artificial muscles that provide a thin, flexible and highly conformable structure.”

The new smart textiles are highly flexible, conformable and mechanically programmable, enabling multimodal movements and shape-shifting capabilities for use in broader applications. Researchers created different smart textile prototypes with experimental validations, including various cases of shape change such as elongation (up to 65%), surface expansion (108%), radial expansion ( 25%) and the flexion movement.

“Soft robots using our smart textile can change shape and be implemented as a lifting mechanism, such as when rescuing people from collapsed buildings or other hazardous environments, or as a flexible tubular gripper – in our experiments , we could lift objects about 346 times the material’s own weight,” said Scientia Professor Nigel Lovell.

The research team, which has published its latest findings in the journals Scientific Reports and Soft Robotics, said the new smart textile could have a wide range of applications in many different fields. These potentially include use as a compression garment in medical and healthcare scenarios, as a wearable assistive device for those who need help moving around, and even as soft shape-shifting robots that can help with recovery of people trapped in confined spaces.

The UNSW team continues to work on further developments, including the integration of a flexible miniature pump and wireless communication modules, which will enable a wireless system.