It looks like we’ve gotten one step closer to science fiction becoming reality with a team from UCLA and the research institute SRI International creating artificial muscles that outperform human ones. Researchers say the new material is up to 10 times more flexible than biological muscles with the ability to generate more force. As thin as human hair and about as light, the high-performance dielectric elastomer (PHDE) film gets stacked between electrodes and the film layers together behave like natural muscles, generating enough energy to power sensors and small robots. 

What are the potential uses for the muscles? UCLA’s Professor Qibing Pei says, “This flexible, versatile and efficient actuator could open the gates for artificial muscles in new generations of robots, or in sensors and wearable tech that can more accurately mimic or even improve humanlike motion and capabilities.” This could include wearables with a sense of touch, worn over the skin or as support in the case of artificial limbs. 

Material that’s soft, pliable, and capable of withstanding strain while delivering mechanical output is nothing new; dielectric elastomers (DEs) have been around since the late 90s. But most DEs are made from either silicone or acrylic. Silicone DEs don’t hold up as well under high strain, and while acrylic DEs fare better under strain, they’re less flexible than the new PHDEs, which are an improvement on the acrylic-based DEs. The power of DEs and PHDEs is that they can be used as actuators, enabling the operation of machines by converting electric energy into mechanical work.

What can these new PHDE actuators do? Researches showed that the material can toss a ball that’s 20 times the weight of the films, expand and contract in response to an electric current, and they have the ability to bend, wind, and spin with flexibility that mimics the movement of spider legs. This gives us a glimpse into how these artificial muscles may move among us in the future.