Engineer wins National Science Foundation award to develop artificial muscles, tendons

The National Science Foundation has bestowed its CAREER award to Zheng Chen, PhD, an engineer and Bill D. Cook assistant professor at the University of Houston, to develop artificial muscle and tendons for prostheses.

According to a press release, Chen will receive $500,000 from the foundation to carry out the project. It will involve materials that can be activated by an electrical charge, which could be used to control the movement of prosthetic hands. The resulting prostheses will be more comfortable and efficient than current models that employ motorized metallic parts, he said. Chen and his colleagues have developed a prototype of the muscle and tendon structure.

“It achieves some performance, but we need to improve the performance,” Chen said in the release. “It is an integrated sensor and actuator, so the person can sense objects, grasp and participate in other activities.”

Chen, who is also the director of the Bio-Inspired Robotics and Controls Lab at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, currently works with “smart materials,” which involve dielectric elastomers and have built-in actuation and sensing capabilities that allow the materials to closely mimic human muscles.

According to the release, Chen will use nanotechnology to “push the material to achieve the necessary performance.” He and his colleagues will use the material to construct the artificial muscle and tendons.


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