Methanol-Powered Robot Muscles - Bend It Like Bender

Alcohol-powered artificial muscles for robots? They could be one way to solve the limits that batteries place on robotic limbs and prosthetics.

Univesity of Texas research nanotechnologist Ray Baughman remarks "One day you could find yourself sitting in a bar next to a humanoid robot, who is taking a shot of vodka to give himself the energy to go to work."

(Bender Bending Rodriguez, alcohol-drinking robot)

It turns out that we've already been there in imagination. Matt Groening's cool 1999-2003 series Futurama features Bender (full name: Bender Bending Rodriguez), a Unit 22 Bending Unit born in a factory in Tijuana, Mexico. Bender attended Bending State college, where he majored in Bending and minored in Robo-American studies. Sadly, his father was killed by a can opener.

Bender requires the chemical energy from alcohol, so he drinks to maintain proper function. Sober, he loses control of his body. His favorite drink? Olde Fortran Malt liquor.

The alchohol-consuming muscle of Baughman's real-life research is made from nickel-titanium shape-memory wire coated in a platinum catalyst. When fumes of methanol, hydrogen and oxygen pass over the platinum coating, they react, releasing heat that warms the wire, making it contract. When the flow of fuel is stopped, the wire expands and returns to its original length. The wire muscle can generate 100 times the force of a natural muscle of the same size, says Baughman.

As a bonus, the muscle itself is the fuel cell; it is hoped that this will be particularly useful in medical prosthetics applications.

Ray Baughman is Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry and Director of NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas in Dallas. He holds 52 patents.

Update 19-Oct-2011: Martin Caidin specifically uses this term in his 1972 novel Cyborg, which was the basis for the film Six Million Dollar Man; see the entry for artificial muscles. End update.

Interested in artificial muscles and internal power sources? Read about the Musclebot - the microrobot with a heart and the smallest implantable body battery. Find out more about methanol-powered muscles; read more about Futurama's Bender. Thanks to alert reader BajaB for the tip on this story. (Remember, you too can contribute story tips and technovelgy items.)

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/17/2006)

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