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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Academics & Research

Professor receives competitive grant to produce better prosthetics


Zheng Chen received a $500,000 grant to develop artificial muscles and tendons to benefit people with disabilities. | Courtesy of Media Relations

People with disabilities who feel encumbered by bulky prosthetics may see relief from a UH professor’s research.

A $500,000 grant to develop artificial muscles was awarded to the UH Department of Mechanical Engineering by the National Science Foundation. Mechanical engineering assistant professor Zheng Chen, who will lead the research, said he thinks the biggest problem with prosthetics is that they’re too heavy and unwieldy.

“The goal is to help people with disabilities, like people who have gotten injured in war or natural disasters,” Chen said. “We’re trying to help them with affordable and compliant prosthetics.”

Chen said he was inspired to do the project when he was a faculty member at Wichita State University. He knew students and professors with disabilities and talked to them about their struggles. Simple things like picking up a fork was hard for them.

“I wanted to see if we could provide prosthetics that are compliant, lightweight and more comfortable for people with disabilities,” Chen said.

He found that dielectric elastomers were suitable for the project after researching materials that could help develop these humanlike muscles. This material consists of devices that are “sandwiched” between two electrodes, and when used as actuators can serve as soft power generators. It can be capable of converting an applied electric field into mechanical motion,  according to the US National Library of Medicine website.

Applying voltage to the elastomer can change the shape, like a human muscle does. The density is almost the same as a biological muscle, Chen said.

Nanotechnology will be used to make the material work and to construct artificial muscles and tendons, he said.

Chen developed an artificial muscle prototype and tendon structure. He used preliminary work and submitted the proposal at Wichita State University. Chen worked at WSU roughly four years, then returned to Houston to work at UH.

“This city is more interesting to me, so (my wife and I) decided to come back. We also missed our friends, and I found a good opportunity in this department” Chen said.

Chen said he will look for two doctorate students and two to three undergraduates willing to be part of this project.

Mechanical engineering doctorate Alicia Keow, said she joined Chen in Houston after she met him at WSU while seeking research experience.

“He was very friendly and helpful (when I met him), and he is always willing to help undergraduate students that are interested in research opportunities,” Keow said.

What Keow finds interesting about the project is that this can be the future of mechanical systems.

“I believe we should start moving away from the traditional mechanical system where everything is powered by gears and motors, because like a car, any part can fail anytime,”Keow said. “Because the system is so complicated, you have to take time to diagnose and find out which one is wrong.”

Keow said that sometimes it’s not the physical system that’s wrong, but rather the sensors. With this project, the dielectric elastomer is a sensor and can actuate if it’s well programmed.

Chen will start advancing his research.

Department Chair of Mechanical Engineering Pradeep Sharma said he is thrilled that Chen received this grant.

“The NSF Career is a highly competitive grant for junior faculty around the country,” Sharma said.

Approximately 40,000 proposals are received each year and only about 11,000 are funded. NSF also accounts for about one-fourth of federal support to academic institutions for basic research, according to the NSF website.

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