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Researchers turn plastic water bottles into prosthetic limbs

Friday 6 September 2019

Artificial limbs made out of plastic water bottles could save healthcare providers millions of pounds and make prosthetics more accessible to millions of people in developing countries.

Working in partnership with the University of Salford, an expert at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) has successfully manufactured the first-of-its-kind prosthetic limb socket made from recycled plastic bottles.

Dr K Kandan, senior lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at DMU, found he could grind the plastic bottles down and use the granulated material to spin polyester yarns, which can then be heated up to form a solid yet lightweight material that can be moulded into prosthetic limbs.

The cost of producing a prosthetic socket this way is just £10, compared to the current industry average of around £5,000 each.

Dr Kandan, who is also associate director of the Institute of Engineering Sciences at DMU, said this breakthrough could address the gap between high-performance prosthesis that cost thousands of pounds and affordable prostheses that lack quality and durability.

As well as DMU and the University of Salford, the project involved the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahavata Samiti (BMVSS) in Jaipur, India – the world’s largest organisation for rehabilitating disabled people – as well as prosthetic experts from the Malaviya National Institute of Technology (also in Jaipur), University of Southampton and University of Strathclyde.

The project was funded by the Global Challenges Research Funding (GCRF), which supports cutting edge research to address challenges faced by developing countries. It was also backed by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the independent UK body that represents the diversity of medical science.

“There are so many people in developing countries who would really benefit from quality artificial limbs but unfortunately cannot afford them,” said Professor Malcolm Granat, Professor in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Salford.

“The aim of this project was to identify cheaper, readily available materials that we could use to help these people. This is a really exciting development and could have an important impact on the way we are able to provide affordable, high quality artificial limbs in future.”

Dr Kandan explained: “We manufactured the socket at DMU and then travelled to India to trial it with two patients – one who had his leg amputated above the knee, and one who had his leg amputated below the knee.”

“Both patients were really impressed – they said the prosthetic was lightweight and easy to walk with, and that it allowed air to flow to the rest of their leg, which is ideal for the hot climate in India.”

Dr Kandan is now looking to conduct a larger-scale study with more people from different countries, so that his design can be adapted to meet patients’ individual circumstances.

It is estimated that more than 100 million people worldwide have had a limb amputated. Diabetes and traffic accidents are two of the biggest causes of lower-limb amputation – both of which are continuously on the rise.

More than a billion people worldwide are thought to live with a disability, with up to 190 million encountering significant difficulties in their day-to-day lives. It is estimated that 80% of disabled people live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where there is significant demand for affordable prosthesis.

“Our work will help restore mobility to the millions of amputees in LMICs and will undoubtedly have a major positive impact on public health and welfare,” added Dr Kandan.

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Róisín Schofield

0161 295 2929