When a sales rep at Rock West Composites first starts working with a new customer, one of the goals is to fully understand how that customer intends to use the materials being purchased. So imagine being a sales rep and hearing that a fabricator is working on creating a genuine bionic man, reminiscent of the 1970s era Six Million Dollar Man.
What is being proposed here is not as fantastic as it sounds. Medical science has long been interested in using all sorts of artificial materials to replace damaged body parts. That is why we have prosthetics. But there is renewed interest in the concept of the bionic man due to advances in composites. Engineers are finding fascinating new ways to use things like carbon fiber to fix what has been lost to disease or injury.
To better understand the concept, do a little research on the Six Million Dollar Man TV show. The program’s storyline revolved around an astronaut who was seriously injured in a crash, then ‘rebuilt’ by doctors using artificial parts. His prosthetics made him super-fast, super-strong, and able to do many things a normal person could not do.
A similar concept was used in the 1987 film RoboCop starring Peter Weller. Other TV programs and films have dabbled in the concept as well. Here’s the point: humanity has long been fascinated with the idea of improving health and performance by integrating prosthetics into the human biology.
Carbon Fiber and Rubber Muscles
One of the more interesting projects now being worked on involves fabricating replacement muscles using carbon fiber and rubber. The goal right now is to fabricate artificial muscles that could replace electric motors in robots. But if the idea works well enough, it could have implications for helping people who have lost muscle function due to disease or injury.
Researchers at the University of Illinois have come up with a material that, when fashioned into an artificial muscle, can lift more than 12,000 times its own weight. The material is made with carbon fiber to give it strength and lifting ability and rubber for flexibility and movement.
The muscle is fabricated as a coiled material that can be manipulated with electricity. In its natural state, the muscle just sits there. But once electricity is introduced, the rubber in the coil heats up and begins to expand outward. This causes the muscle to contract along its length.
Researchers have discovered they can trigger the reaction with both electricity and liquid hexane. But for the purposes of replacing electric motors, the electric trigger is more viable. Robot designers could keep everything the same but simply swap out electric motors with composite muscles.
Now that proof of concept has been demonstrated, researchers are looking at different adaptations. They are fully confident they can design artificial muscles to do different kinds of tasks based on the amount of weight that needs to be lifted.
For example, they believe it is possible to fabricate a muscle that lifts less weight but does it faster. For heavier weights, they would need to focus on strength rather than speed. At any rate they are fairly certain that adaptability is possible with their design.
The implications for human adaptations are quite clear. If we can build a prosthetics with electric motors triggered by natural electrical impulses generated by the body, we should be able to do the same thing with artificial muscles. We may be only a few years away from helping people regain motor skills lost to disease or injury. Imagine that!