Breakthrough bionic muscle idea takes shape

Professor Geoff Spinks and Dr Javad Foroughi speak with infectious enthusiasm about possible applications for the artificial muscles they are busy creating at the University of Wollongong.

Professor Geoff Spinks and Dr Javad Foroughi at the Innovation Campus. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

Professor Geoff Spinks and Dr Javad Foroughi at the Innovation Campus. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

Their ideas range from smart clothing that can automatically react to heat or sweat, through to bionic muscles that could eventually act as replacement body parts.

"What we're trying to do is produce bionic muscles, which is a big, big challenge because natural muscles are an amazing machine," Professor Spinks said.

Their grand ideas begin with very small technology, just a fraction of the diameter of a human hair.

Tiny carbon nanotube threads are combined with wax to create a very strong thread of yarn that reacts to heat either by contracting or expanding.

The next step - and the subject of current research efforts - is to develop a method to weave, sew, knit or braid the threads with the aim of creating textiles with the same properties.

Professor Spinks said one of the recent breakthroughs was to take the threads "out of the beaker", meaning that unlike other artificial muscles, they worked when they were dry.

Fabrication expert Dr Foroughi - whose PhD was the stimulus for the new research - said the yarns could be used to create textiles that, by changing their porosity, could allow heat in or release it.

Based on the initial research, possible future uses could include clothing that responded to body heat or sweat, or even gloves or sleeves that could help people to move.

Dr Foroughi has been awarded a three-year fellowship from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to develop intelligent fabrics.

The researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at UOW are working as part of a team spread across four continents.


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