The foam is unique because it can be formed and has connected pores that allow fluids to be pumped through it. The polymer foam starts as a liquid that can be poured into a mould to create shapes, and because of the pathways for fluids, when air or liquid is pumped through it, the material moves and can change its length by 300 percent.
While applications for use inside the body require federal approval and testing, Cornell researchers are close to making prosthetic body parts with the so-called "elastomer foam".
"We are currently pretty far along for making a prosthetic hand this way," said Rob Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
The team demonstrated a pump they made into a heart, mimicking both shape and function. The researchers used carbon fibre and silicone on the outside to fashion a structure that expands at different rates on the surface - to make a spherical shape into an egg shape, for example, that would hold its form when inflated.
"We would like to make the foam actuators faster and with higher strength so we can apply more force. We are also focusing on biocompatibility," Shepherd added in a paper which appeared in the journal Advanced Materials.