• A shock-absorbing artificial muscle made from an electrostatic elastomer.

    Credit: Fraunhofer Institute

    A shock-absorbing artificial muscle made from an electrostatic elastomer.

Artificial muscles seem to be a likely technology for robotic armatures or anatomical enhancements. However, as Fraunhofer Institute scientists demonstrate, they can also be used for absorbing shocks and harnessing energy from the environment.

The engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability in Darmstadt, Germany have developed a new elastic material that reacts to undesirable vibrations and dampens them more than previous technologies. The material, which is made from a next-generation electroactive elastomer, responds actively to counter negative oscillations, in contrast with previous products that were passive in nature.

One application where such a material would be welcomed is automobile engines. "An engine‘s vibrations can be really disruptive,” says Fraunhofer scientist William Kaal. “The vibrations are channeled through the chassis into the car‘s interior, where the passengers start to feel them.”

The material's function can also be reversed, in order to extract power from its surroundings. This could be particularly useful in circumstances where one wants to monitor conditions in contexts that experience vibrations but where power delivery would be cost-prohibitive—such as distributed sensors in bridges or other critical infrastructure.

As with any sensing technology, however, the biggest challenge will be to make the material robust enough to endure for many years in high-abuse conditions such as engines and roadways.