Miniature High-Force, Long-Stroke SMA Linear Actuators

Stroke forces, stroke lengths, cycle speeds, and structural strengths are increased.

Improved long-stroke shape-memory-alloy (SMA) linear actuators are being developed to exert significantly higher forces and operate at higher activation temperatures than do prior SMA actuators. In these actuators, long linear strokes are achieved through the principle of displacement multiplication, according to which there are multiple stages, each intermediate stage being connected by straight SMA wire segments to the next stage so that relative motions of stages are additive toward the final stage, which is the output stage.

Prior SMA actuators typically include polymer housings or shells, steel or aluminum stages, and polymer pads between successive stages of displacement-multiplication assemblies. Typical output forces of prior SMA actuators range from 10 to 20 N, and typical strokes range from 0.5 to 1.5 cm. An important disadvantage of prior SMA wire actuators is relatively low cycle speed, which is related to actuation temperature as follows: The SMA wires in prior SMA actuators are typically made of a durable nickel/titanium alloy that has a shape-memory activation temperature of 80 °C. An SMA wire can be heated quickly from below to above its activation temperature to obtain a stroke in one direction, but must then be allowed to cool to somewhat below its activation temperature (typically, to ≤ 60 °C in the case of an activation temperature of 80 °C) to obtain a stroke in the opposite direction (return stroke). At typical ambient temperatures, cooling times are of the order of several seconds. Cooling times thus limit cycle speeds. Wires made of SMA alloys having significantly higher activation temperatures [denoted ultra-high-temperature (UHT) SMA alloys] cool to the required lower return-stroke temperatures more rapidly, making it possible to increase cycle speeds.

The present development is motivated by a need, in some applications (especially aeronautical and space-flight applications) for SMA actuators that exert higher forces, operate at greater cycle speeds, and have stronger housings that can withstand greater externally applied forces and impacts. The main novel features of the improved SMA actuators are the following:

  • The ends of the wires are anchored in compact crimps made from short steel tubes. Each wire end is inserted in a tube, the tube is flattened between planar jaws to make the tube grip the wire, the tube is compressed to a slight U-cross-section deformation to strengthen the grip, then the crimp is welded onto one of the actuator stages. The pull strength of a typical crimp is about 125 N — comparable to the strength of the SMA wire and greater than the typical pull strengths of wire-end anchors in prior SMA actuators. Greater pull strength is one of the keys to achievement of higher actuation force.
  • For greater strength and resistance to impacts, housings are milled from aluminum instead of being made from polymers. Each housing is made from two pieces in a clamshell configuration. The pieces are anodized to reduce sliding friction.
  • Stages are made stronger (to bear greater compression loads without excessive flexing) by making them from steel sheets thicker than those used in prior SMA actuators. The stages contain recessed pockets to accommodate the crimps. Recessing the pockets helps to keep overall dimensions as small as possible.
  • UHT SMA wires are used to satisfy the higher-speed/higher-temperature requirement.

This work was done by Mark A. Cummin, William Donakowski, and Howard Cohen of MIGA Motor Co. for Glenn Research Center.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to NASA Glenn Research Center, Innovative Partnerships Office, Attn: Steve Fedor, Mail Stop 4–8, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44135. Refer to LEW-18267-1.

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).

Miniature High-Force, Long-Stroke SMA Linear Actuators (reference LEW-18267-1) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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