Editor’s note: WRAL Local Tech Wire is adding sources for news, including stories, photos and graphics produced by the news services of various universities. Such stories will be labeled as UniversityTech and with the appropriate source. By adding stories and information from collegiate news services, LTW will enhance significantly its coverage of scientific and research efforts at regional universities where many of tomorrow’s discoveries are being made and the foundations of new companies are in the process of being created.

RALEIGH, N.C. – Two researchers at North Carolina State University have found that certain strands of fibers that resemble human muscle can exhibit muscle-like capabilities when electrical currents are applied, paving the way for advancements and potential applications in several different fields including robotics, “smart textiles,” prosthetics and biomedicine.

Scientists have demonstrated previously that certain plastics known as electroactive polymers can expand and contract when a current is applied, but Drs. Tushar Ghosh, an NC State textiles professor, and John Muth, associate professor of engineering, have shown for the first time that plastic tube structures in the shape of human muscle strands can be manipulated with electricity.

Ghosh and Muth used polyurethane and silicone tubes in their experiments. When an electric current was applied, the tubes exhibited movements and produce forces similar to that of human muscle. The tubes are the first artificial muscle-like fibers produced in a lab. The prototypes used in the experiment were roughly the size of a pencil lead, significantly larger than an actual human muscle fiber. The results are important, Ghosh and Muth say, because the experiment shows that certain polymers can perform like muscle tissue. The goal now is to work on scaling the fibers down to the size of muscle fibers.

“We have developed a fiber at a large scale and demonstrated that you can generate significant levels of force,” Ghosh says. “The muscles in our bodies are made of fibers, and if we can mimic those fibers, get them down to scale and bundle them in the same way, we believe we can make very useful devices with them.”

“We’ve been interested in these ideas of being able to control the shapes of fabrics using electricity or some other forces for some time,” Muth says. “There are a wide variety of potential uses for these types of fibers. A good next step would be to reduce the size of these fibers to a smaller scale.”

Ghosh and Muth’s work was funded by a three-year grant from the National Textiles Center. Their results were published in the journal Sensors and Actuators.