Currently, robotic muscles move 100 times slower than ours. But engineers using the Yip lab’s new theory could boost those speeds – making robotic muscles 1,000 times faster than human muscles – with virtually no extra energy demands and the added bonus of a simpler design.

In this case, a robotic muscle refers to a device that can be activated to perform a task, like a sprinkler activated by pulling a fire alarm lever, explains Yip, a professor of nuclear engineering and materials science and engineering.

In the past few years, engineers have made the artificial muscles that actuate, or drive, robotic devices from conjugated polymers. “Conjugated polymers are also called conducting polymers because they can carry an electric current, just like a metal wire,” says Xi Lin, a postdoctoral associate in Yip’s lab. (Conventional polymers like rubber and plastic are insulators and do not conduct electricity.)

Conjugated polymers can actuate on command if charges can be sent to specific locations in the polymer chain in the form of “solitons” (charge density waves). A soliton, short for solitary wave, is “like an ocean wave that can travel long distances without breaking up,” Yip adds. Solitons are highly mobile charge carriers that exist because of the special nature (the one-dimensional chain character) of the polymer.

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