Inexpensive, matchstick-sized devices with no moving parts could serve as cheap, power-efficient substitutes for small electric motors found in consumer products ranging from microwave ovens to cars. These devices-under development by NanoMuscle in Antioch, CA-translate electronic signals into linear motion without the need for bulky magnets, coils, spindles and position sensors. The devices consist of off-the-shelf microprocessors attached to small metal strips, which are connected with wires made of shape memory alloy. (This alloy, used in most cell-phone antennas, changes shape in response to an electrical signal.) In the devices, proprietary software regulates the processor’s electrical signal to achieve a given effect-say, to close a doll’s eyes halfway.
Once production ramps up, the nanomuscles should cost a few dollars each, according to NanoMuscle CEO Rod MacGregor. NanoMuscle has already made headway in the toy market. Hasbro will be using the devices in toys that will be in stores as soon as Christmas 2002. The company has five patents pending; mass production started in August.