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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Artificial muscles powered by water

This narrated video explains how the polymer films -- combinations of rigid polypyrrole matrices and dynamic polyol-borate networks -- work as actuators, or artificial muscles, to generate small amounts of electricity.
Credit: [Video courtesy of Dr. Mingming Ma]

Researchers have designed artificial muscles, or actuators, that react to moisture in the environment. These actuators expand when they absorb water and contract when they expel it. So, when the researchers place them on a flat, wet surface, the actuators swell up and then topple over continuously.

Since they are constantly exchanging water with the surface they are resting on, the actuators appear to dance around all by themselves. This continuous movement can produce tiny amounts of energy—and Mingming Ma and colleagues, who invented these new artificial muscles, figured out a way to convert that energy to electricity.

The researchers hooked their artificial muscles up to small generators, which can store the electrical energy produced by the constant movement. The actuators seem to generate more force than others like them, and the researchers say that they can produce up to a volt of electricity at a time. Eventually, Ma and his colleagues suggest that the small amount of electricity produced by these actuators could be used to power tiny electronic devices.