Shape memory nanocomposite fibers for untethered high-energy microengines

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Science  12 Jul 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6449, pp. 155-158
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw3722

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Getting the most out of muscles

Materials that convert electrical, chemical, or thermal energy into a shape change can be used to form artificial muscles. Such materials include bimetallic strips or host-guest materials or coiled fibers or yarns (see the Perspective by Tawfick and Tang). Kanik et al. developed a polymer bimorph structure from an elastomer and a semicrystalline polymer where the difference in thermal expansion enabled thermally actuated artificial muscles. Iterative cold stretching of clad fibers could be used to tailor the dimensions and mechanical response, making it simple to produce hundreds of meters of coiled fibers. Mu et al. describe carbon nanotube yarns in which the volume-changing material is placed as a sheath outside the twisted or coiled fiber. This configuration can double the work capacity of tensile muscles. Yuan et al. produced polymer fiber torsional actuators with the ability to store energy that could be recovered on heating. Twisting mechanical deformation was applied to the fibers above the glass transition temperature and then stored via rapid quenching.

Science, this issue p. 145, p. 150, p. 155; see also p. 125


Classic rotating engines are powerful and broadly used but are of complex design and difficult to miniaturize. It has long remained challenging to make large-stroke, high-speed, high-energy microengines that are simple and robust. We show that torsionally stiffened shape memory nanocomposite fibers can be transformed upon insertion of twist to store and provide fast and high-energy rotations. The twisted shape memory nanocomposite fibers combine high torque with large angles of rotation, delivering a gravimetric work capacity that is 60 times higher than that of natural skeletal muscles. The temperature that triggers fiber rotation can be tuned. This temperature memory effect provides an additional advantage over conventional engines by allowing for the tunability of the operation temperature and a stepwise release of stored energy.

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