European success18.01.2022

Strong idea earns researchers EU funding

Researchers from the University of Fribourg’s Adolphe Merkle Institute have been awarded a highly competitive European Pathfinder grant, worth a total of €3 million, to develop novel artificial muscles. 

The INTEGRATE project will be led by group leader Dr. Alessandro Ianiro (BioPhysics) together with his colleague Dr. José Berrocal (group leader, Polymer Chemistry and Materials), and the AMI BioPhysics chair, Prof. Michael Mayer. The goal is to develop soft actuating devices fueled by metabolic (biochemical) energy, eliminating the need for external power sources for these devices. Implantable materials based on this technology would be similar to healthy muscles, replacing damaged ones, or they would be built into complex prosthetic devices, and powered by small and non-invasive power units integrated within the body.

Energy into motion
The ability to transform energy into controlled motion is one of the most intriguing features of living organisms and has inspired the development of technologies capable of performing mechanical operations. This process led to the use of hard and soft machines as implantable medical devices, for instance peacemakers or prosthetics. However, limitations hinder the fulfilment of the enormous potential of implantable actuating systems. These include the mismatch between mechanical properties and biological tissues, the need for bulky devices to activate them pneumatically, or external power sources.

Next-generation bionics
INTEGRATE targets three science-towards-technology breakthroughs to overcome these limitations. First, the development of next-generation soft actuating materials, mimicking the functioning of animal muscles. These bionic muscles (BM) will be soft, biocompatible, multifunctional, power-efficient and will possess actuating properties comparable to human muscles. Secondly, large-scale 3D printing of these materials, allowing for tailor-made BMs for patients. Finally, the creation of an artificial Energy-Harvesting Organ (EHO) capable of harvesting metabolic (biochemical) energy and converting it into electricity. Biosensors would connect the artificial muscles with physiological signals.

The European Innovation Council’s Pathfinder program supports the exploration of bold ideas for radically new technologies. It welcomes the high-risk / high gain and interdisciplinary cutting-edge science collaborations that underpin technological breakthroughs. In the latest round of grants, only six per cent of applications (56 out of 868 proposals), including INTEGRATE, were successful. The project is also the only one with a Swiss leading house.

The INTEGRATE project brings together partners from:
The Adolphe Merkle Institute, University of Fribourg, Switzerland (leading scientific house)
Laboratory of Physical Chemistry, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, Netherlands
Dipartimento di Ingegneria dell'Impresa «Mario Lucertini», University of Rome Tor Vergata, Rome, Italy
Laboratoire de Physique des Solides, CNRS, Paris, France
VELTHA International Research Association, Brussels, Belgium