Using household tools such as an electric drill and hair dryer, researchers have turned nylon fibres into artificial muscles that can lift 100 times more weight than human muscles.
The work, published today in Science, shows that extensive twisting of common fishing line and sewing thread leads to a spring-like coil with super-strength qualities.
Collaborator Professor Geoff Spinks says it is a much-sought breakthrough that could open the door to the use of artificial muscles in clothing and prosthetic manufacture, robotics, and as a green energy source.
Spinks, from the Australian Research Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at the University of Wollongong, says the discovery is “almost embarrassing”.
“It is ironic that we spent all these years looking at exotic materials — and of course the lessons we learned from those years led us to this dramatic discovery — but it is remarkable that such ordinary materials can do such amazing things,” he says.
The breakthrough is the result of a 15-year international collaboration led by scientists at the University of Texas.
“We knew from our previous work with carbon nanotube artificial muscles that having a particular geometry was critical, and that was a helically twisted fibrous structure,” says Spinks.
“We knew in nylon fibres the molecules are aligned within that solid fibrous structure, so we just wondered whether the individual polymer molecules would act in the same way that was happening with the carbon nanotube system.”
“So it was just a matter of getting these commercially available polymer fibres from the fishing store and twisting them and seeing what happened.”