For the latest news, events and announcements about UA, please visit

The new UA News Center features news channels specifically for students, faculty and staff, media and research. The UA News Center uses video, photography and narrative to tell the UA story to our various audiences. It also serves as a hub for finding information on campus resources and calendars. will remain in place temporarily as an archive, but will no longer be updated.

The University of Alabama

UA Engineering Professor Developing Better Ankle Prosthesis

On the right, Dr. Xiangrong Shen, associate professor of mechanical engineering, discusses a prototype of a below-knee prosthesis with graduate student Molei Wu.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. —  Most people probably do not spend much time contemplating the mechanics of walking, likely unaware of their ankle’s crucial role.

The human ankle supplies considerably more energy than both the hip and knee, making it a critical part of walking. Unfortunately, the standard below-knee prosthesis does not produce enough power to support an amputee’s walk.

Instead, most prostheses only dissipate energy, or store and reuse energy in walking. This requires the amputee’s other joints to work harder, causing the amputee to expend more energy and resulting in an often unnatural and asymmetric gait.

Dr. Xiangrong Shen, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Alabama, hopes to develop a solution to this problem. After receiving a grant of about $564,000 from The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, he launched a four-year project with researchers from UA, Vanderbilt University and the Georgia Institute of Technology to produce alternative below-knee prosthesis capable of actively powering the ankle joint in use.

According to Shen, there are two key components in the new prosthesis. The first is a special type of liquid fuel called monopropellant. Monopropellant works as an energy-storing medium and decomposes upon contact with certain catalysts. The use of this fuel allows for a light-weight prosthesis that stores enough energy to operate for daily use.

The second component is a sleeve muscle actuator, an artificial muscle that replaces the motor used in some alternative prosthesis as the prosthetic actuator. The sleeve muscle is more powerful, with a lighter weight and more compact profile, and its elastic properties are similar to a biological skeletal muscle.

Shen has successfully demonstrated the basic concept of the actuator and how to use it to drive a robotic joint.

“The idea is to benefit those amputees to live a higher quality life. That’s the motivation for all these works,” Shen said.

To better guarantee the safety and reliability of the prosthesis, Shen plans to explore new approaches in fuel storage, exhaust management, thermal insulation and heat management.

“This is a relatively new system,” Shen said. “There are some problems in putting the prosthesis into clinical use because the components of the prosthesis are still being developed. In our research, the long-term goal is to develop powered prostheses with comparable appearance and functionality as human limbs.”

After the research element of the project is completed, Shen and his team will test the device at Georgia Tech where he will use their multi-camera motion capturing system to measure his subject’s gait. He will also use a force plate to assess the kinetics in the walking as well.

At UA, Shen will work with Dr. John Baker, professor in mechanical engineering, and Dr. Samit Roy, the William D. Jordan professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics. Shen expects the project to be completed by 2016.

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has more than 3,900 students and more than 110 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz and Truman scholars.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.