Last night, NASA rocketed off an advanced material from Cape Canaveral in Florida to the International Space Station aiming to examine how it behaves in a zero gravity space environment. Lenore Rasmussen at Ras Labs, together with researchers and engineers at the US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have been developing a synthetic muscle that might be used to improve prosthetic limbs and possibly help build more responsive robots.
Rasmussen initially started working with PPPL in 2007, shortly after setting up Ras Labs: a revolutionary science laboratory that develops and produces customised products to heal and save lives – such as Synthetic Muscle™. Their aim is to create materials that allow for life-like motion and control. Rasmussen first received her patent for synthetic muscle in 1998. Synthetic Muscle™ is a gel-like substance called an electroactive polymer (EAP), which may be used to make robotics and prosthetics for the hand that behave, feel and appear human. It may potentially mimic human movement, as it is able to expand and contract in the same way human muscle tissue does. The Pediatric Medical Device Consortium at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recently awarded Rasmussen with a grant to research the possibility of using Synthetic Muscle™ as a more comfortable and ergonomic prosthetic limb. This is because the vestigial limbs of amputees often expand and contract during the day and so Ras Labs aims to replicate this in their technology in order to improve current prosthetics.
The Synthetic Muscle™ may also be used in robotics intended for deep space travel – for example to Mars – because of its resistance to radiation. “Based on the good results we had on planet Earth, the next step is to see how it behaves in a space environment,” said Charles Gentile, a PPPL engineer who has worked closely with Rasmussen. “From there the next step might be to use it on a mission to Mars.”
Exploring space without robots is challenging, Rasmussen explained, “Humans may only withstand a certain amount of radiation so that limits the time that people might be in space, whereas robots particularly if they’re radiation-resistant may be up there for long periods of time without being replaced.”
PPPL provided much needed help and support along Rasmussen’s entrepreneurial quest. Lew Meixler, the long-serving head of Technology Transfer at PPPL, who retired in March, said, “That’s what entrepreneurs are…they’re the dreamers who devote all their time, energy and resources to follow their dreams.” Rasmussen apparently solved an important challenge at PPPL surrounding the gel’s adherence to metal. Originally partnering with Meixler on a federal Cooperative Research and Development Agreement in the Plasma Surface Laboratory, she treated the metal (typically steel or titanium) with a plasma agent. This allowed the gel to adhere more tightly to the metal by altering the metal’s surface.
PPPL were also involved in a number of experiments last summer when the Synthetic Muscle™ was exposed to more than 300,000 RADs of gamma radiation (20 times the lethal amount for humans and equivalent of a return journey to Mars). The material reportedly successfully withstood the conditions it would meet on a trip to Jupiter and even further.
Since last summer, Rasmussen and PPPL have been preparing the Synthetic Muscle™ for its journey. It was launched on the Falcon 9 rocket, which also carried the Dragon (both produced by Space X), to the International Space Station National Laboratory. It is due to arrive 33 hours after the initial launch where astronauts intend to use the stations 57-foot arm to catch the Dragon and reel it in. The materials are arranged to return to Earth in July where they may be compared with identical materials that remained on Earth.
How might exposure to the environment of outer space affect the Synthetic Muscle™?