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New entrant muscles into the market

01 June, 2004

New entrant muscles into the market

The market for technologies that mimic the behaviour of muscles is hotting up with the creation of a new company in California to market and develop components based on an "electroactive polymer", which is said to be lighter, smaller, quieter, faster and cheaper than existing actuation technologies. The polymer has been developed over the past 12 years by researchers at SRI International, backed by $20m of funding from the US defence department.

The new company, Artficial Muscle Incorporated (AMI), has secured an initial $2.5m of venture capital, with a further $5m due to follow later this year if certain milestones are met.

The thin, flexible polymer material expands when exposed to an electric current, and contracts when power is removed, thus converting electrical energy into mechanical movement. It is claimed to offer significant advantages over electromagnetic, piezoelectric, pneumatic and hydraulic technologies, in terms of cost, noise, speed, weight, controllability and flexibility.

"Artificial muscle has the potentially to fundamentally shift the way that many types of industrial, medical, consumer, automotive and aerospace products are powered and operated," says Alex Beavers, AMI`s chief executive. "We already have an impressive list of current and potential customers that will work with use to bring artificial muscle into mainstream use". Beavers was previously chief executive of Thomson Industries, and has held corporate posts at Applicon, Schlumberger, General Electric and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

SRI has granted AMI a broad licence to apply the polymer technology as a lightweight and efficient alternative to small motors, actuators, pumps, solenoids, sensors and generators. The technology can be applied in various formats, including flat planar actuators, and direct linear drive cylindrical actuators. The potential annual market is estimated to be worth more than $4bn.

Other companies developing and offering artificial muscle technologies include Festo and the British robotics specialist, Merlin Actuators.

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