The Bionic Arm

Sep 6, 2007 6:15pm

A side effect of the Iraq war, we’ve all learned, is that troops who would have died in the past are coming home alive–alive, but sometimes less than whole.  DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been funding work for a program called "Revolutionizing Prosthetics," hoping to create an artificial arm that, for the first time, might come close to being as functional as the human arm.  There’s been a lot of attention given to work at Johns Hopkins and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where doctors have been working on getting a wearer’s nerves to send commands directly to the mechanical hand.  While it’s still early, the results have been striking, and widely publicized. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, mechanical engineering Prof. Michael Goldfarb has been working on a more basic problem.  Let’s say you can make a good prosthetic arm; how do you power it?  Does the wearer have a battery pack?  Do you plug it in overnight to recharge? Goldfarb’s group is experimenting with hydrogen peroxide, a simple compound used for bleach and rocket fuel.  Mix it with a catalyst, and you get steam.  Simple, more powerful than electricity, and non-toxic.  Vanderbilt has posted more HERE, and has produced a video, which you can watch HERE if you have Real Player 9 or newer. Separately, Dean Kamen, the famed designer of the Segway scooter and the infusion pump used by many people who need regular liquid medication, has been working on an arm, and the VIDEO of a talk he gave at a TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in the spring has just been posted.  Kamen does not give many details in this five minute video, but he does speak compellingly about why he thinks this is work worth doing. 
(Vanderbilt University photo: Prof. Michael Goldfarb with prosthetic arm.)

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