Ever dream of one day donning a super suit that makes you able to throw some real weight around the gym, just to show up those gargantuan meatheads who are always hogging the squat rack? Well, some busy researchers in Sweden may have created the textile that will make all of your strongman fantasies come true. That and, you know, help injured or disabled people move freely in a world built for the able-bodied.
Scientists from Linköping University and the University of Borås wanted devise an exoskeleton that wouldn’t end up being a huge, hulking outer scaffolding that wasn’t terrifyingly bulky—think Ripley’s power loader in Aliens. Instead, they've decided to modify regular fabric by coating it with an electrically sensitive polymer, in a process that’s similar to dyeing. With this approach they hope to create electrically charged that can act like “textile muscles” to give the wearer extra power for weighty tasks, or augment a weakened body.
Their new study found that when an electrical charge is applied to the amped up textile’s special coating, it changes in volume, which causes the fibers to lengthen, comparable to how real muscles expand or contract. Think Batman's cape in Batman Begins—with an electrical charge, the fabric forms a skeleton to support his "wings."
“If we weave the fabric, for example, we can design it to produce a high force," said study co-author Nils-Krister Persson, associate professor in the Smart Textiles Initiative at the University of Borås' Swedish School of Textiles. "In this case, the extension of the fabric is the same as that of the individual threads. But what happens is that the force developed is much higher when the threads are connected in parallel in the weave.”
In the study, they demonstrated that a simple Lego robot outfitted with the textile muscles could lift a small weight. The researchers state in the study that they hope their advances will eventually be able to make soft exoskeletons not much different from tights that can be worn to help with walking, or perhaps socks and sleeves that could apply compression to relieve edema.
We're holding out for the Batman cape.