A synthetic muscle made by a company with ties to the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab has been launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon rocket to the International Space Station for testing.
Ras Labs was founded in 2003 by Lenore Rasmussen, a researcher who made an accidental discovery in 1986 while working as an undergrad lab technician at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Rasmussen, who later earned a doctorate at Purdue, was running an electrical current through a blob of polymer gel when it weirdly responded by shrinking to a fifth its normal size. When she stopped the current, it returned to its former size.
The discovery eventually led Rasmussen to become an expert on electroactive polymers and build her career pursuing the idea that the polymers could be used to make artificial muscles for robots and prosthetics. Rasmussen worked for Johnson & Johnson and lived in Hightstown in the 1990s, striking out in 2003 with her own company.
Rasmussen began to work with the PPPL lab in 2007 in a cooperative arrangement between Ras Labs and the federally funded plasma physics lab. Plasma is an integral part of creating the material Rasmussen is studying, and she could not afford the expensive equipment on her own. In 2011 her lab received a grant from the Department of Energy. Around the same time, Rasmussen’s husband, also a chemist, was laid off in the downturn of the central New Jersey pharmaceutical sector, and took a new job in Massachusetts. Rasmussen followed him there and established a new company headquarters, though she maintains a lab at the Plasma Physics Laboratory.
Charlie Gentile, an engineer for the PPPL, has been working with Rasmussen since 2007. Gentile, a Plainsboro resident who has been working for the PPPL for 30 years, helped Rasmussen use the lab’s unique capabilities to advance her research. For example, Gentile helped use plasma to help the Rasmussen’s polymer adhere to metal electrodes.
Rasmussen’s ultimate goal is to create artificial muscles for prosthetics for earthbound humans. But in 2009 Rasmussen published a paper that caught the attention of the space exploration community. She had subjected prototypes of her material to extreme cold — two to four degrees Kelvin, barely warmer than absolute zero — and then thawed them out and observed they still worked perfectly. Using PPPL equipment with the help of Gentile, she also bombarded the artificial muscle with extreme radiation, similar to what a spacecraft would experience if it went all the way to Jupiter, and observed that it was seemingly unaffected except for a change in color.
Rasmussen says materials that can function in spite of cold and radiation are coveted by NASA and other space exploration groups for potential use in spacefaring robots. In 2013 she won a highly competitive grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, through the MassChallenge Business Accelerator, to send her muscles to the International Space Station on board a resupply rocket.
For Rasmussen, the mission to create artificial muscles is a personal one. She grew up in West Virginia, where her family owned a farm. By age 13, she was hunting and trapping to help feed the family while her mother, a nurse, worked the night shift. She says her mother somehow managed to send Rasmussen and her brothers to college. “College was my way out of rural poverty,” she says.
While Rasmussen was studying viruses at Purdue, she heard some terrible news back home: her cousin, who was in his 20s like her, had been badly mangled in a hay spreading machine accident. Because the machine was also used to spread manure, doctors feared gangrene might set in and force them to perform amputations. Finding suitable prosthetics fell to Rasmussen, the scientist of the family. After looking through what was available, she was impressed with the legs, but was disappointed with the hands.
Rasmussen realized that good prosthetics would never be possible without artificial muscles. She also realized that the weird blob of polymers she discovered in her undergraduate days could be the key to building them.
The quest to create artificial muscles is not progressing as quickly as Rasmussen would like, although Ras Labs has taken several important steps forward recently. In 2013, Rasmussen was coaching her child’s soccer team with Eric Sandberg, a recent MBA graduate from Babson College and the two began to discuss their careers. Sandberg was impressed that Rasmussen’s tiny company had managed to beat more than 1,000 competitors to win the MassChallenge grant. “For a one-person company to get to that level was unbelievable,” he says. “I knew she was the real deal.” After working for free as a business advisor, Sandberg left his position at Osram Sylvania to become Rasmussen’s business partner and the CEO of Ras Labs.
The company is also set to take its first commercial step forward. Rasmussen is working with the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia to use her fifth-generation polymers in a prosthetic limb being built there. Rasmussen’s ultimate goal is to create materials that function as an actuator — a muscle that moves a joint, such as an elbow. But CHOP is using her polymers for a different, though very important purpose — as part of the liner of the socket between the limb and the prosthetic.
“That’s the area that attaches to the person,” Rasmussen says. “It’s also a pain point for people, because if you have it too loose, you have slippage. If you have it too tight, it’s very uncomfortable.” It’s hard to get a good fit because limbs naturally change size over the course of a day. Currently, people who wear prosthetic feet often change socks multiple times a day or even use small pieces of cardboard to ensure a comfortable fit. The Ras Labs muscle could help solve this problem by automatically changing the size of the liner to keep the prosthetic snug all day long. “This may be our first market entry,” Rasmussen says.
In the meantime, Rasmussen traveled to Florida with her mother to watch the Falcon rocket carry her cargo to the ISS, where it will stay inside the station for 90 days in a zero-G storage rack. Astronauts will take photos of the materials every three weeks. The whole time, Rasmussen will maintain an identical setup back on Earth. After 90 days, the polymers will be sent back down to Earth, where Rasmussen will compare the samples to see if there were any differences.
“I am a space junkie,” she says. “We are giving each other vulcan high-fives right now in the lab. I just applaud humanity’s quest to explore the next frontier, and I’m incredibly excited to be a part of that effort.”
If all goes well, Ras Labs will send samples on a future space station mission, this time seeing how they do outside of the spacecraft.
Gentile said the space enthusiasm has spread to the PPPL as well. He was glued to NASA TV, the space agency’s live broadcast channel, when the experiment was successfully delivered on April 10 around 6:55 a.m.
“When people are engaged in something, it’s just that much more exciting,” he said. “It’s like following your favorite football team, except you’re involved in it.”
In any case, the polymers that Rasmussen has spent decades developing are finally getting their moment in the sun, and their inventor couldn’t be happier about it.
“She’s like a kid waiting for a birthday present,” Sandberg says.
Ras Labs LLC, 100 Stellarator Road, L-127, Princeton 08543; 908-296-9056; fax, 609-243-2418. Lenore Rasmussen, chief technology officer. www.raslabs.com.