In order to make a robot limb — or powered prosthetic — move, you need to have an actuator of some sort: something to apply force that will create motion. Common solutions rely on hydraulics (liquid pumps), pneumatics (air pumps), or electric motors. These solutions tend to be bulky and requiring rigid components. A flexible actuator could be extremely useful.
Researchers at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) may have developed a solution to the problem. They have used a special type of plastic film called dielectric elastomers to create an artificial muscle. Other designs using this type of material have required high voltages and complex controlling circuitry. This new material offers a broad range of motion while requiring relatively low voltage. Best of all, its controlling circuits can also be flexible.
The system relies on carbon nanotubes in a carbon grease to create the electrodes. By using a sandwich of multiple layers of the film, the scientists were able to increase the amount of force that the system can generate. If you click on the photo above, you can watch the muscle in motion as it responds to different electrical charges. This technology could be helpful in creating everything from soft robots to intelligent, powered prosthetic limbs.