UT Dallas

Ordinary sewing thread can have superhuman power. That’s according to researchers at UT Dallas who discovered fishing line and sewing thread can be cheaply converted to powerful artificial muscles — no Rumpelstiltskin required.

The KERA radio story.

Human muscle is powerful, but not nearly as powerful as artificial muscle created at UT Dallas.

“Our artificial muscles can generate about 100 times the amount of mechanical power that a natural muscle can generate,” says Dr. Ray Baughman, the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry at UT Dallas and director of the NanoTech Institute.

Carter Haines, a graduate student at UTD and co-author of the research published in the Journal Science, uses a motor to spin the thread until the tension causes it to coil.

Lauren Silverman/KERA News

Carter Haines, a graduate student at UTD and co-author of the research published in the Journal Science, uses a motor to spin the thread until the tension causes it to coil.

Baugman already holds more than 70 patents, but he’s especially excited about his most recent discovery — which he says could  be used to build superhuman exoskeletons, robots and even adjustable clothing.

How Thread Is Spun Into Muscle

The first step in turning nylon thread into artificial muscle is twisting it until it coils up, like a phone cord.

Carter Haines, a graduate student at UTD and co-author of the research published in the Journal Science, explains they use a motor to spin the thread until the tension causes it to coil. 

“They’re very similar to the way our natural muscles work,” Haines says, “They’re just assemblies, many fibers put in parallel, when you give them an electrical stimulus, they contract.”

Controlling the threads contractions is what makes it possible for threads to lift weights, or power a prosthetic limb. You can control the contractions, Professor Baughman explains, with electricity or heat from water.

Whereas natural muscles contract by 20 percent, these new muscles can contract by 50 percent of their length. So twisting together a bundle just ten times larger than a human hair creates a muscle that can lift 16 pounds.

Real World Uses For Artificial Muscle 

Richard Vaia, a materials scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio, says the UTD lab-create muscle could be used to create exoskeletons that help soldiers carry heavy weights, or replace hydraulic pumps used in aircraft. UTD’s research was partially funded by the Air Force – but Vaia’s not connected to this study.

“Even to mechanisms to deploy satellites and antennas,” Vaia says, “When you get into space you have to pull things apart, these could potentially be the right power weight ratios for those types of applications.”

UT Dallas researchers Dr. Marcio Lima, Dr. Ray Baughman, and graduate student Carter Haines.

Lauren Silverman/KERA News

UT Dallas researchers Dr. Marcio Lima, Dr. Ray Baughman, and graduate student Carter Haines.

Vaia says systems engineers now need to analyze and compare artificial muscles –there are a variety of lab created muscles on the  market, each with different features.

But part of what makes the artificial muscle created at UT Dallas stand out is how cheap the materials are, and how simple the concept of creating the coil is.

So before you decide to toss that fishing line, you might as well give it a spin.