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Hydraulic hand promises Hulk handshakes

Oak Ridge labs is developing a "mesofluidic" hydraulic hand that can double the pinch strength of your fingers. Applications include remote disarming of explosives.

Injured soldiers and people with disabilities might one day benefit from a hydraulic hand that doubles finger strength. Scientists at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory say a "mesofluidic" hand could be used to remotely disarm explosives and manipulate IEDs.

Mesofluidics is the study of applying pea-size hydraulics to applications requiring significant power in a limited space.

An artist's rendering of a mesofluidic "glove." Oak Ridge National Laboratory

So far, the team at the Tennessee laboratory has developed an artificial finger made up of 25 moving parts. It can deliver 20 pounds of pinch force, about double that of a human finger, while remaining lightweight and rugged.

Key innovations were a small, 200 psi hydraulic pump that produces about 30 watts of hydraulic power, as well as miniature high-performance valves that control motion.

The next stage in development is a full hydraulic hand. It could have prosthetic applications similar to DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program--described in this "60 Minutes" video--which aims to create an artificial arm with full motor and sensory functions.

Prosthetic technology hasn't advanced much in decades, but current wars and new technologies are changing that. Prosthetics maker OrthoCare Innovations is working with the Oak Ridge team to use mesofluidics for boosting strength in weakened elbows and knees.

But a more intriguing use would be telerobotics. Though robots have been developed for mine detection and disposal, the hydraulic hand could have unparalleled dexterity as a remote-controlled device.

The Oak Ridge scientists are designing a glove with a mesofluidic exoskeleton that will be linked to a remote hydraulic hand with force feedback. Users would be able to roughly feel what the remote hand is manipulating.

That might save some lives--and prevent some expensive robots from getting blown up.