Most of the artificial muscles are based on either pneumatic power or nylon fibers being heated so they contract. These methods consume more energy than what can be utilized.

Likewise, in early days when the light bulbs that produced photons by heating the filament (which also requires considerable energy), they were replaced by energy efficient light-emitting diodes.

Are there any promising materials that can do the same for artificial muscles by converting electric energy directly to actuation instead of into heat and actuation being the side product of the heat itself?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1. Welcome to the site! Sorry you couldn't find an appropriate tag, but I have tagged it with a more appropriate one than you had before. This question is quite similar to your previous one here: engineering.stackexchange.com/q/37051/18132, but I do think that Engineering.SE might be a better place for this question. I don't know how much materials modelers will be able to help, right now at least (since our site only went public 3 months ago and we have very few members so far!). $\endgroup$ – Nike Dattani Aug 26 '20 at 21:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @NikeDattani thanks for warm welcome. I had no clue initially what might be suitable tags so thanks again for being supportive! $\endgroup$ – gfdsal Aug 26 '20 at 22:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1. You're very welcome. If you want this question to get more attention and possibly more answers, you can tweet it @stackmatter and we'll re-tweet for you. $\endgroup$ – Nike Dattani Aug 26 '20 at 22:28

Hasel actuators can contact and expand fast and use veggtable oil and plastic. Here is a video on how the work https://youtu.be/Yi8tUJowAuo

  • $\begingroup$ @Matt, your answer matches most closely to the question I asked along with the fact that it is commercializable, as this is converting electric potential energy directly to actuation and more scalable then the piezo-electric actuator that is mentioned in the answer earlier, hence I am accepting this a the most appropriate answer to my queston. $\endgroup$ – gfdsal Aug 28 '20 at 12:31
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1. But now that this is the accepted answer of a "Hot Network Question" that is published network-wide, and got over 2000 views, it would be nice if Matt could elaborate a bit. This answer is short enough to be a "comment" rather than an answer. Please see all the other answers to see the type of effort that other people are putting into their contributions. $\endgroup$ – Nike Dattani Aug 28 '20 at 18:25

This question is more about engineering than materials modeling, but I will try to supply a partial answer and let others decide if it isn't. You may get a better answer at Physics.SE.

My first thought would be that hydraulic power is a straightforward improvement over pneumatic since there is less energy wasted due to the compression of air. But if we want to move to a more materials based way of thinking you can also look at piezoelectric actuators.

A piezoelectric actuator is a linear (typically) motor that works by applying a voltage to a material that can contract or expand in response to the voltage. This is something that I imagine could actually be modeled to some degree using computational methods such as DFT. These types of motors are currently used for some applications already, but not in the same manner as muscle fiber. They are used for really fine control of small movements (in the nm range).

Since these materials actually work in a similar manner to a muscle, I think these are the "LED"s of a muscle fiber. A quick google search gives a variety of efficiencies for electric to mechanical work but it seems that it is somewhere around 25%. Surely this is higher than needing to constantly heat a nylon fiber for example, but I am not sure. This also may have a lot of room for improvement, but I am not an expert in the topic.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +10. Beautiful! I was worried we wouldn't be able to help the new user! $\endgroup$ – Nike Dattani Aug 26 '20 at 21:46
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I am now very curious if modeling could improve these motors in the future, but this is so far out of my normal realm of research that I will sadly probably never revisit this idea past this answer. I was surprised to see that this question could be answered in our context. $\endgroup$ – Tristan Maxson Aug 26 '20 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ @TristanMaxson, +1 for correlation of piezo-electric with leds, you answer does makes lots of sense. $\endgroup$ – gfdsal Aug 26 '20 at 22:14

Photochemical "Muscles"

All motors require energy, and you mentioned that heat maybe problematic because of heat loss. So you might be interested in photochemistry. These reactions can be made to be highly photon (i.e. energy) efficient and directional.

Feringa Motors

A promising technology for artificial muscles are those based off the light-driven molecular motors such as the Feringa rotary motors. For example, the Feringa motor can be utilized to produce "Macroscopic contraction of a gel induced by the integrated motion of light-driven molecular motors" [1]. This is almost exactly how a muscle fiber works. Essentially, there are three components: a) the motor which turns unidirectionally with light and heat, b) two polymer strands which are connected to the opposite ends of the motor, and c) the modulator which binds together the end of the polymer. Therefore, when the motor spins it causes the polymer strands to wrap around each other and to contract. Furthermore, when you want to uncontract/uncoil the strands you open the modulator with a different wavelength of light.

Optomechanical devices

Another great example are "optomechanical devices" which can produce macroscopic motion. My favorite is the "Photoinduced peeling of crystals"[2]. See this

Video thumbnailPhotoinduced peeling a molecular crystal on Chemistry World

Another author to look at for optomechanics is the Professor Garcia-Garibay, he has been interested in crystalline artificial muscles. For example, in reference [3] is a picture similar to this so it deserves a citation.

enter image description here

Rotaxane Shuttles

Finally, rotaxane is a mechanically interlocked molecular architecture that can be used to produce macroscopic motion similar to a muscle. These typically operate by changing the protonation states. But this action can be performed by either chemical or photochemical inputs (e.g. a photoacid!)

Video thumbnailThe operation of a molecular shuttle on Wikipedia


  1. Ke, C. A Light-Powered Clockwork. Nat. Nanotechnol. 2017, 12 (6), 504–506. https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2017.44.
  2. Tong, F.; Al-Haidar, M.; Zhu, L.; Al-Kaysi, R. O.; Bardeen, C. J. Photoinduced Peeling of Molecular Crystals. Chem. Commun. 2019, 55 (26), 3709–3712. https://doi.org/10.1039/c8cc10051a.
  3. Vogelsberg, C. S.; Garcia-Garibay, M. A. Crystalline Molecular Machines: Function, Phase Order, Dimensionality, and Composition. Chem. Soc. Rev. 2012, 41 (5), 1892–1910. https://doi.org/10.1039/c1cs15197e.
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the references, I couldnt find the proof of concept device that uses this technology. This does look promising though. $\endgroup$ – gfdsal Aug 27 '20 at 13:42

A research group lead by Prof. Ray Baughman, from the University of Texas at Dallas, uses a yarn of carbon nanotubes. From the abstract of one of its works1:

We show that an electrolyte-filled twist-spun carbon nanotube yarn, much thinner than a human hair, functions as a torsional artificial muscle in a simple three-electrode electrochemical system, providing a reversible 15,000° rotation and 590 revolutions per minute. A hydrostatic actuation mechanism, as seen in muscular hydrostats in nature, explains the simultaneous occurrence of lengthwise contractiona nd torsional rotation during the yarn volume increase caused by electrochemical double-layercharge injection. The use of a torsional yarn muscle as a mixer for a fluidic chip is demonstrated.

A similar idea is used by the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute in Australia (link).

The image below is from a mini-review authored by Prof. Baughman2, showing SEM images of (a) a CNT sheet being drawn from a CNT forest (which is on the left in this image), (b) Fermat-type twist insertion during spinning a yarn from a CNT forest, (c) a single-ply, twisted, non-coiled CNT yarn, and (d) a single-ply, coiled yarn

  1. Javad Foroughi, et al. Torsional Carbon NanotubeArtificial Muscles, Science, 334, 494, 2011 (DOI: 10.1126/science.1211220, ResearchGate).
  2. Jae Ah Lee, Ray H Baughman & Seon Jeong Kim, High performance electrochemical and electrothermal artificial muscles from twist-spun carbon nanotube yarn. Nano Convergence, 2, 8, 2015 (DOI: 10.1186/s40580-014-0036-0 Open Acess!)
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ this is great. Its pity that there is no practical proof of concept for this technology as this was published as of 2020. $\endgroup$ – gfdsal Aug 27 '20 at 13:41

Pneumatic "muscles"

Basically, these involve an inflatable tube (essentially a long balloon) surrounded by a tube of fiber mesh that is anchored to the surfaces that force will be exerted upon. When the inflatable tube is filled with air using a pneumatic pump, it expands until it reaches the mesh. This puts the mesh under a tensile force around the radius of the tube, contracting its length and exerting a force upon its mounting points.

These "muscles" aren't particularly powerful, and have a very limited range of motion, but they do work, and don't involve converting electricity into heat as the mechanism of the motion. The Hacksmith, for instance, used them to build an arm exoskeleton that was capable of lifting a few hundred pounds a few inches.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.