Before the era of electronic gadgets and video games, kids used to entertain themselves with mechanical toys. One such toy was the balsa wood airplane powered by a rubber band-driven propeller. The plane was designed around the most basic principles of physics and aeronautics.
Anyone who remembers the rubber band airplane is familiar with the concept of potential energy. That same concept is now being applied to making mechanically powered devices with carbon fibers. Research is still in its preliminary stages, but the potential is there.
More About Potential Energy
To understand the research in question, one must first understand potential energy. Potential energy is best understood with a rubber band airplane model. Turning the propeller of such a plane causes the rubber band to twist in place. Release the propeller and it begins to spin as the rubber band unwinds. This is all due to potential energy.
The force necessary to wind the rubber band is stored in the rubber band as energy. Keeping the propeller locked in place forces the energy to remain in storage. Yet that energy has potential; it can do some work if it is released. That work is powering the plane’s propeller.
Potential energy is essentially stored energy that exists as a result of deforming a particular material. The energy is produced by way of the force needed to deform the material. Yet the material wants to return to its natural shape. To do so, it must release that stored energy.
Twisting Carbon Fibers
As for the previously mentioned research, it is currently ongoing in Australia. Researchers are studying carbon fibers and their potential for storing energy if twisted together like a rubber band. Their research is showing incredibly good results thus far.
Carbon fibers are fibers made of carbon molecules that have been forced to align in an end-to-end structure through the application of high heat. To keep things as simple as possible, imagine a super small thread made of carbon, a thread with properties similar to a polyester or cotton thread.
The engineers at Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites explain that this is what carbon fiber products really are. Virgin fibers are spun together to make threads – or carbon fiber tow as it is known in the industry – which can then be utilized to make fabrics or ‘yarns’, if you will.
Combining several of these threads in a bundle and then twisting that bundle creates a situation very similar to twisting a rubber band using a toy plane propeller. You get potential energy that can do work once released.
Artificial Carbon Fiber Muscles
One area now being looked at is creating artificial muscles with carbon fibers. The idea is to bundle and twist the fibers to create artificial muscle tissue that is mechanically powered. In theory, it is possible to create an artificial muscle that doesn’t require an exterior electrical charge or a chemical reaction (battery) to work. The simple act of moving the muscle back and forth would utilize potential energy as the muscle fibers are continually twisted and released.
Imagine the possibilities if this research proves to be everything it is hoped to be. Mechanically powered artificial muscles could change the medical industry dramatically. It could mean a whole new life to people currently living with paralysis. Artificial muscles could help the aging, the injured, etc.
Potential energy is a concept science has known about for generations. Today, scientists are applying the fundamental concepts of potential energy in new and exciting ways that stand to benefit humanity beyond anything we could have previously imagined.