One of the biggest problems with creating robots or exoskeletons is that the motors that power movement are bulky and heavy.
What these systems are really trying to replicate is human muscles, only much stronger and more efficient muscles.
About a year ago University of Texas at Dallas materials scientist Ray Baughman and some colleagues were working with carbon nanotube wires - tiny, exotic strings that are very strong, have unique electrical properties and are also expensive to make. They were twisting these nanotubes to see what happened.
Then they began wondering whether twisting more commonplace materials would have similar, interesting properties. It turns out that high-strength polymer fibers, like those in common fishing line or certain sewing threads, did.
By twisting the fishing line to the point that it turns into a coil, the scientists effectively created 1Cmuscles 1D that can contract and lift loads 100 times heavier than human muscles of the same length and weight. The results are reported in the journal Science today.
"It was just a guess, and the result was incredibly surprising," Baughman told me. "The idea of being able to take something so cheap, you can buy fishing line for about $5 a kilogram, there's just no barrier for entry into this."