Researchers have developed an artificial foot which they hope will make walking for amputees become an easy task by recycling energy, otherwise wasted, in between steps.
"For amputees, what they experience when they're trying to walk normally is what I would experience if I were carrying an extra 30 pounds," said Art Kuo, professor in the University of Michigan departments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering.
Compared with conventional prosthetic feet, the new prototype device significantly cuts the energy spent per step.
A paper about the device is published in the Feb. 17 edition of in the journal PLoS ONE. The foot was created by Kuo and Steve Collins, who was then a U-M graduate student.
The human walking gait naturally wastes energy as each foot collides with the ground in between steps.
A typical prosthesis doesn't reproduce the force a living ankle exerts to push off of the ground. As a result, test subjects spent 23 percent more energy walking with a conventional prosthetic foot, compared with walking naturally. To test how stepping with their device compared with normal walking, the engineers conducted their experiments with non-amputees wearing a rigid boot and prosthetic simulator.
In their energy-recycling foot, the engineers put the wasted walking energy to work enhancing the power of ankle push-off. The foot naturally captures the dissipated energy.
A micro-controller tells the foot to return the energy to the system at precisely the right time.
Based on metabolic rate measurements, the test subjects spent 14 percent more energy walking in energy-recycling artificial foot than they did walking naturally. That's a significant decrease from the 23 percent more energy they used in the conventional prosthetic foot, Kuo says.
"We know there's an energy penalty in using an artificial foot," Kuo said. "We're almost cutting that penalty in half."