"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


“Artificial muscles” could be woven into clothing

Feb. 21, 2014
Courtesy of the University of British Columbia
and World Science staff

Fibers from fish­ing line and thread can be used to make in­ex­pen­sive ar­ti­fi­cial mus­cles in fab­rics, med­i­cal de­vices, robots and pros­thetic limbs, re­search­ers say.

In a study pub­lished Feb. 20 in the jour­nal Sci­ence, re­search­ers claim to have cre­at­ed ar­ti­fi­cial mus­cles that gen­er­ate far more force and pow­er than hu­man or an­i­mal mus­cles of the same size.

A scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­scope im­age of metal-coated ny­lon fibers used in de­sign of the new ar­ti­fi­cial mus­cle. (Cred­it: Seyed Mo­ham­mad Mir­vak­ili)

“We found that it can quickly lift weights 100 times heav­i­er than a same-sized hu­man mus­cle can, in a sin­gle con­trac­tion,” said Uni­vers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia en­gi­neer John Mad­den, a co-author of the stu­dy. “It al­so has a high­er pow­er out­put for its weight than that of an au­to­mo­bile com­bus­tion en­gine.”

Ar­ti­fi­cial mus­cles have been made out of ma­te­ri­als like met­al wires and car­bon nano­tubes in the past, he said, but these were costly to make and hard to con­trol.

Mad­den and col­leagues used strong pol­y­mer fibers made from pol­y­eth­yl­ene and ny­lon, the com­mon ma­te­ri­als in fish­ing lines and sew­ing thread. The fibers were twisted in­to tight coils – like you would twist the rub­ber band of a mod­el toy air­plane – to cre­ate ar­ti­fi­cial mus­cles that could con­tract and re­lax.

They do so in re­sponse to tem­per­a­ture changes, con­trollable by elec­tri­city, said the de­vel­op­ers, who dem­on­strat­ed the sys­tem by us­ing the mus­cles to ma­ni­pu­late sur­gi­cal for­ceps.

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Fibers from fishing line and thread can be used to make inexpensive artificial muscles in fabrics, medical devices, robots and prosthetic limbs, researchers say. In a study published Feb. 20 in the journal Science, researchers detail how they created artificial muscles that generate far more force and power than human or animal muscles of the same size. “We found that it can quickly lift weights 100 times heavier than a same-sized human muscle can, in a single contraction,” said University of British Columbia engineer John Madden, a co-author of the study. “It also has a higher power output for its weight than that of an automobile combustion engine.” Artificial muscles have been made out of materials like metal wires and carbon nanotubes in the past, he said, but these were costly to make and hard to control. Madden and colleagues used strong polymer fibers made from polyethylene and nylon, the common materials in fishing lines and sewing thread. The fibers were twisted into tight coils – like you would twist the rubber band of a model toy airplane – to create artificial muscles that could contract and relax. They do so in response to temperature changes, controllable by electricity, said the developers, who demonstrated the system by using the muscles to manipulate surgical forceps.