Polyurethane aerogel technology transforms prosthetics

Technology |  2 min. read

It’s the memory foam on your mattress – it’s the stuffing in your sofa – it’s the protective coating on your dining room table.

And now, polyurethane (which is all those things and more) – is being used to make a human hand.  Or more exactly, a hand for humans – a prosthetic hand.

Now, if you’re asking yourself, “Wait, what?  The same stuff inside a cushion, can make a hand?” – well, that’s a good question.

Did you know?

Polyurethane itself, by the way, whatever it’s used for, starts with one of two chemicals – toluene or benzene.  Those two are petrochemicals, made from breaking apart molecules of naphtha, a component of petroleum, or isolating them from an oil refining process called catalytic reforming.  After some serious work in the chemistry lab, those simple molecules are reacted with other chemicals to form monomers, which are combined, linked together, to form “polymers” – in this case, polyurethane.

So here’s a good answer:  this polyurethane, the one used to make the hand, is made in the form of an aerogel.  And a polyurethane aerogel isn’t anything like the stuff in a cushion, or anything else, really.

Then, to make an aerogel from polyurethane, you take out the liquid (which means, yes, calling it a “gel” IS confusing.  Even the scientists say that.) – and you wind up with, a material that is almost 100 percent air – super lightweight – and at the same time, super strong and flexible.  Yeah, go figure.  But it works.

So the end result here – is a hand, made from polyurethane aerogel – which actually feels more hand-like than anything else (except an actual hand).  And while this is very much still in the lab stage – in the lab, they made a hand that can open, pick up something, put it back down, and close again.

All of that is unquestionably cool.  But a material that could make a more-human, human hand replacement – is also unquestionably important.  Almost two million Americans today are amputees.  Almost 190,000 amputations are done every year in the U.S.  Some of those are people with serious diabetes, some are kids who are born with a birth defect, some are veterans injured in combat.

So a prosthetic hand (or foot, or limb) that felt much more like real skin, and moved much more like a real hand – might be pretty near miraculous for a lot of people.  And that miracle starts in a chemistry lab, with raw materials that come from petroleum or natural gas.

(By the way, we’d like to show you a picture of that hand.  But this project is still too deep in the lab for that – so for that, stay tuned.)