Carbon Nanotube Reinforced Composites for artificial muscle and skin

Nanotube composites can generate more than an order of magnitude improvement in the longitudinal modulus (up to 3300%) as well as damping capability (up to 2100%). It is also observed that composites with a random distribution of nanotubes of same length and similar filler fraction provide three times less effective reinforcement in composites.

Jonghwan Suhr,an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said his study of continuous reinforced carbon nanotube composites brings him a step closer to his hope of bio-mimicking artificial muscles or skins, which can be applied to a wide variety of fields.

In addition, the continuous composites are lightweight, flexible, have mechanical robustness, outstanding fatigue resistance, electrical and thermal conductivities and also has tissue-like behavior, Suhr said.

While Suhr is interested in the mechanical uses for the composite, he is also exploring the use of the composite for mimicking muscle tissue. Suhr is currently working with the aircraft company, Boeing, to investigate creating artificial skin made from continuous reinforced carbon nanotube composites for wing structures of unmanned air vehicles. Suhr said he hopes the artificial skin on unmanned air vehicles will decrease wind resistance to the vehicle, which will result in energy efficiency. Suhr also hopes to develop artificial skin to apply to wind turbine blades to increase energy efficiency for the renewable energy systems.

Suhr’s plan for the new composite also includes biological applications. He hopes to make the inactive material electro active. This would eliminate the need for many mechanical parts in a mechanism.

“This fascinating soft tissue-like material can be made into an electroactive polymer,” Suhr said. “So that we don’t have to add mechanical motors, which is typically heavy. So maybe we can develop bio-mimicking artificial muscles using this material.”

Suhr and his colleagues’ advance in creating a new nanotube composite material lead to a new frontier in nanotechnology. It makes Suhr’s future plans in mimicking muscles and producing new mechanical and structural applications possible.

“We need new material to break through our state of art technology,” Suhr said. “There are many interesting nanomaterials whose properties have not been fully understood yet. We may want to explore them and understand the fundamentals so as to be utilized for emerging applications such as next generation aircraft or alternative energy systems.”