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Artificial Muscles [Preview]

Novel motion-producing devices--actuators, motors, generators--based on polymers that change shape when stimulated electrically are reaching commercialization.
Plastics That React

POLYMERS THAT change shape in response to electricity, according to Bar-Cohen, can be sorted into two groups: ionic and electronic types, each with complementary advantages and disadvantages.

Ionic EAPs (which include ionic polymer gels, ionomeric polymer-metal composites, conductive polymers and carbon nanotubes) work on the basis of electrochemistry—the mobility or diffusion of charged ions. They can run directly off batteries because even single-digit voltages will make them bend significantly. The catch is that they generally need to be wet and so must be sealed within flexible coatings. The other major shortcoming of many ionic EAPs (especially the ionomeric polymer-metal composites) is that “as long as the electricity is on, the material will keep moving,” Bar-Cohen notes, adding: “If the voltage is above a certain level, electrolysis takes place, which causes irreversible damage to the material.”

In contrast, electronic EAPs (such as ferroelectric polymers, electrets, dielectric elastomers and electrostrictive graft elastomers) are driven by electric fields. They require relatively high voltages, which can cause uncomfortable electric shocks. But in return, electronic EAPs can react quickly and deliver strong mechanical forces. They do not need a protective coating and require almost no current to hold a position.

SRI's artificial-muscle material falls into the electronic EAP classification. The long, bumpy and sometimes serendipitous road to its successful development is a classic example of the vagaries of technological innovation.

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