Artificial limbs made out of plastic water bottles could save healthcare providers millions of pounds and help tackle pollution at the same time.

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. These are then heated up to form a solid yet lightweight material that can be moulded into prosthetic limbs.

Cost saving medical advances

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 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 helping to solve the problem of plastic pollution.

“Upcycling of recycled plastics and offering affordable prosthesis are two major global issues that we need to tackle,” he said. “We wanted to develop a prosthetic limb that was cost effective yet comfortable and durable for amputee patients.”

The project was funded by the Global Challenges Research Funding (GCRF), which supports cutting edge research to address challenges faced by developing countries. In addition, it’s 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 Dr Kandan. “The aim of this project was to identify cheaper materials that we could use to help these people, and that’s what we have done.”

Patients trial new prosthetic limbs made from plastic bottles (resize)

Putting the prosthetic to test

“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,” explained Dr Kandan. 

“Both patients were really impressed stating the prosthetic was lightweight and easy to walk with, and that it allowed air to flow to the rest of their leg.”

Dr Kandan’s next step is to conduct a larger-scale study with more people from different countries. This will enable his design to 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.

Why use bottles?

Meanwhile, around one million plastic water bottles are bought every minute yet only 7% are recycled, with the rest leaking into landfill or the ocean.

“There are some really scary statistics about how much plastic there is polluting our oceans and the planet,” said Dr Kandan. “One of the biggest problems is that plastic bottles cannot be recycled and reused for the same purpose, so it’s up to us to find new uses for them.

“Our design has significant potential to promote the circular economy for plastic by using recycled plastic yarns to manufacture affordable prosthetic limbs – especially for amputees in developing countries.”