These muscles exploit strong, tough, highly flexible yarns of carbon nanotubes, which consist of nanoscale cylinders of carbon that are ten thousand times smaller in diameter than a human hair. Important for success, these nanotubes are spun into helical yarns, which means that they have left and right handed versions (like our hands), depending upon the direction of rotation during twisting the nanotubes to make yarn. Rotation is torsional, meaning that twist occurs in one direction until a limiting rotation results, and then rotation can be reversed by changing the applied voltage. Left and right hand yarns rotate in opposite directions when electrically charged, but in both cases the effect of charging is to partially untwist the yarn.
This is an illustration of an electrolyte-filled electrochemical cell used for characterizing torsional and tensile actuation for a carbon nanotube muscle, where the optional reference electrode, the actuating nanotube yarn electrode, and the counter electrode are from left to right. Torsional actuation rotates the paddle attached to the nanotube yarn. Credit: Image courtesy of the
The mechanism of torsional rotation is remarkable. Charging the nanotube yarns is like charging a supercapacitor - ions migrate into the yarns to electrostatically balance the electronic charge electrically injected onto the nanotubes. Although the yarns are porous, this influx of ions causes the yarn to increase volume, shrink in length by up to a percent, and torsionally rotate. This surprising shrinkage in yarn length as its volume increases is explained by the yarn's helical structure, which is similar in structure to finger cuff toys that trap a child's fingers when elongated, but frees them when shortened.
Nature has used torsional rotation based on helically wound muscles for hundreds of millions of years, and exploits this action for such tasks as twisting the trunks of elephants and octopus limbs. In these natural appendages, helically wound muscle fibers cause rotation by contracting against an essentially incompressible, bone-less core. On the other hand, the helically wound carbon nanotubes in the nanotube yarns are undergoing little change in length, but are instead causing the volume of liquid electrolyte within the porous yarn to increase during electrochemical charging, so that torsional rotation occurs.
The combination of mechanical simplicity, giant torsional rotations, high rotation rates, and micron-size yarn diameters are attractive for applications, such as microfluidic pumps, valve drives, and mixers. In a fluidic mixer demonstrated by the researchers, a 15 micron diameter yarn rotated a 200 times larger radius and 80 times heavier paddle in flowing liquids at up to one rotation per second.
"The discovery, characterization, and understanding of these high performance torsional motors shows the power of international collaborations", said Ray H. Baughman, a corresponding author of the author of the Science article and Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry and director of The University of Texas at Dallas Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute. "Researchers from four universities in three different continents that were born in eight different countries made critically important contributions."