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New polymer potentially used as artificial muscle

15 Jan 2013

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Engineers at MIT have recently created a new polymer film which has the potential to be used as artificial muscle and to power Micro- and Nano-electronic devices. The new polymer film can generate electricity by drawing on an abundant power source: water vapor.

The newly discovered polymer film changes shape after absorbing small amounts of evaporated water allowing it to repeatedly curl up and down. Harnessing this continuous motion could drive electronic limbs or generate enough electricity to power devices such as environmental sensors.

"With a sensor powered by a battery, you have to replace it periodically. If you have this device, you can harvest energy from the environment so you don't have to replace it very often," says Mingming Ma, a postdoc at MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and lead author of a paper describing the new material in the Jan. 11 issue of Science.

"We are very excited about this new material, and we expect as we achieve higher efficiency in converting mechanical energy into electricity, this material will find even broader applications," says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and senior author of the paper. Those potential applications include large-scale, water-vapor-powered generators, or smaller generators to power wearable electronics.

Other authors of the Science paper are Koch Institute postdoc Liang Guo and Daniel Anderson, the Samuel A. Goldblith Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and a member of the Koch Institute and MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

The new film is made from an interlocking network of two different polymers. One of the polymers, polypyrrole, forms a hard but flexible matrix that provides structural support. The other polymer, polyol-borate, is a soft gel that swells when it absorbs water.

Previous efforts to make water-responsive films have used only polypyrrole, which shows a much weaker response on its own. "By incorporating the two different kinds of polymers, you can generate a much bigger displacement, as well as a stronger force," Guo says.


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