During their senior year, a pair of recent Mattituck High School graduates traded in their first-period study hall for an independent project. Their goal: engineering a prosthetic hand equipped with artificial muscle.
Jack Dufton, 2016 salutatorian, and Yianni Giannaris spent more than eight hours a week on the project, which required repeated trial and error to perfect engineering muscles out of fishing line.
The idea dates back to the end of their junior year, when they approached technology teacher Mark Mincieli and asked if they could do an independent study. Initially, they wanted to sign up for a robotics course that was created two years ago but couldn’t fit it into their schedules since they were already enrolled in AP Biology and AP Physics.
“We still wanted to work down in the metal shop,” Jack said. “It’s better than sitting, listening to music and twiddling our thumbs for 45 minutes.”
Mr. Mincieli said that if they found a project, they could give it a try.
After a summer of brainstorming, Yianni found a suitable project involving artificial muscles made from fishing line — a relatively new topic.
“I figured it’d be more rewarding than taking a piece of technology that someone has worked on and perfected and just applying it, because it left us room for discovery,” he said.
Mr. Mincieli was on board with supervising their project.
“I hadn’t read anything on [these muscles] so I thought it was kind of a neat idea,” he said.
Work had been done previously on producing artificial muscles from many different materials. Until 2014, however, fishing line hadn’t been among them. That’s when a team of material scientists at the University of Texas in Dallas discovered a process that made use of these low-cost fibers.
According to Popular Mechanics, an online magazine dedicated to current trends and technology, the scientists used plastics like polyethylene or nylon, both of which are used in fishing line. Then, using a machine, they twisted the strands to the point where they began to coil up and then heated the coils so they remained intact, creating a hyper coil.
Once the coil is heated, the scientists found, it contracts — like a real muscle.
After researching the work being done in Texas, Jack and Yianni reached out to researchers in Australia who were doing similar work. They responded with tips and advice, along with an essay on what they had completed so far, Jack said.
From there, the students did their own research and conducted trials to determine what material and heating element would work best.
“We were watching videos of the Australians and banging our heads against the table trying to figure out what they were using,” Jack said. “We tried a million different things.”’
It took about seven months for Jack and Yianni to decide how to coil and heat their synthetic muscles. The hands-on work began in April.
After trying nichrome wire, kanthal and a few other materials to build the coils, the research partners chose a silver-coated nylon thread, a common and inexpensive type of fishing wire.
To twist their wire, they created a coiling device from parts of a rowing machine and a motor from an electric scooter. Electric current was then run through an attached circuit board, pulsing the coil with a flow of heat. The students had trouble finding a suitable heating element, as some they tried emitted too much heat. Jack said some, such as a brass tube wrapped in nichrome, got so hot they could be used as weapons.
“That thing could burn through you pretty good,” he said. “With this project we learned that burnt skin does not smell too good.”
The wire they finally chose reaches temperatures between 150 and 200 degrees.
Once Jack and Yianni figured out how to make their “muscles,” it was time to determine a practical use for them.
According to Popular Mechanics, these types of muscles have uses ranging from facial muscles in robots to creating exoskeleton suits. The Mattituck students chose a medical application: prosthetics.
A prosthetic using artificial muscles made from contracting coils would be silent compared to the more common motor-driven prosthetics.
Jack said the project was a nice combination of both students’ intended fields of study: Jack will attend Amherst College for biology and Yianni will study engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Using a 3-D printer at the school, they printed a hand, hoping to attach their muscle fibers to it and enable it to function.
Employing 3-D printing technology would have been unthinkable five years ago, when it was far too expensive for any investigation being conducted outside a highly funded research facility.
Currently, a single muscle strand can lift about 150 grams — substantially higher than its own mass of less than one gram. As for contraction, their muscles are at about a 10 to 12 percent contraction along the length, Mr. Mincieli said.
While the students have completed the muscles and the hand, the school year came to end before they could complete their project by combining them. For now, they’ll put the project on hold to focus on college.
“We may pick it up between semesters,” Yianni said.
The students said that while the entire process was fun, there was a lot of trial and error. They both agreed that the moment the muscles started working was the most exciting. They also said they enjoyed how every day was a challenge and that they always had to solve a problem.
“Sometimes I’d be distracted in other classes trying to figure out what I was doing wrong that morning,” Jack said.
Top caption: Recent Mattituck graduates Yianni Giannaris, left, and Jack Dufton work on their senior project. (Credit: Sara Schabe)