Low-cost environmentally friendly prosthetic leg for the disabled

Malaysian and UK medical device and composite materials experts have partnered up to research into using natural fibres for prosthetic limb technology to lower the cost of the prosthesis

Drawings of the lower limb prosthetic socket

Universiti Malaysia Perlis and Newcastle University researchers have partnered up to make a low-cost lower limb prosthetic socket using locally derived natural fibres from agricultural waste, that would directly benefit the economy of the local community. This project is part of a joint research program between the two universities that was awarded a prestigious Research Environment Links (REL) grant as part of the Going Global Partnerships programme managed by the British Council with Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT). The REL grant provides financial support for capacity-strengthening and collaboration activities to develop and sustain medium to long term relationships proposed by applicant institutions in partner countries and the UK. The project is led by Associate Professors Mohd Shukry Abdul Majid and Fauziah Mat from the School of Mechatronic Engineering, UniMAP, and Professor Tom Joyce, and Associate Professor Kheng Lim Goh from the the Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering, Newcastle University.

“The UniMAP has outstanding people, excellent facilities and is well known for composite material research expertise under the strong leadership of Assoc. Prof. Shukry,” says Prof Tom Joyce. “We are delighted to be able to partner with the UniMAP team to work on this project for the benefits of the many people who need lower limb prosthetics.”

Specifically, Assoc. Profs Shukry and Fauziah are working on the project, assisted by a research assistant, to exploit natural fibres, such as kenaf fibres or pine apple leaf fibres (generated as agricultural waste from the agricultural industry), for use in reinforcing plastics that are used to make the lower limb prosthetic socket (Figure). UniMAP has significant expertise creating novel composite materials from synthetic and natural fibres for applications in the marine, land transport and construction industry.

“The current prosthetic sockets are made from a mould that is derived from the residual limb. This ensures that the best possible design with a comfortable and effective fit can be achieved. The prosthesis is laminated by carbon or glass fibres reinforcing plastics, which are lightweight and offer good flexibility.” says Assoc. Prof Shukry.

However, as the world grapples with the targets of COP26, such as moving away from our reliance on oil and gas, which are the main sources from which plastics and carbon fibres are derived, the materials for making the prosthetic sockets will become more expensive as they become harder to obtain. The focus of the REL project is about the use of natural fibres derived from waste generated from the local agricultural industry, to replace the synthetic fibres for reinforcing the plastic sockets, as a viable medical device. Because the making of the prosthetic socket is so complex, and there are many stages in the production process, even the idea of introducing natural fibres may not simply lead to lowering the negative impact on the environment. Every product has a life cycle, and every stage in the cycle can consume energy, produce solid wastes and emits green house gases. The prosthetic socket is created, sold, used and then disposed of. At the end of its useful life with one consumer, it could not be reused by another consumer. It may, however, be recycled or sent to the waste stream. In the case of the latter, the plastic (and natural fibres) materials and the energy used to make the device are lost. Thus, making the device recyclable could save both materials and energy. Newcastle University researcher Assoc Prof Goh's part involves conducting the life-cycle assessment to identify the environmental impact of the prosthetic device at every stage of its life cycle. The aim is to identify opportunities to reduce the overall impact of the device. While conducting a life-cycle assessment is not straight-forward, ensuring that the prosthetic device meets the requirement of the medical device regulatory body is also challenging. Prof. Joyce is a respected authority in medical device technology who has a knack for discovering problems and the cause of problems in medical devices, before it gets too late. He will provide invaluable expert guidance to the team in ensuring that  the environmentally friendly prosthetic leg achieves regulatory approval and thus becomes available to the people who need them. 

Regarding the new design, Assoc Prof Goh says "we will embrace an ecologically sustainable approach, with no waste build-up anywhere; leftover materials energy from one product stage will become raw materials for other industry. The best part of this is that the feasibility study will help to bring out novel ideas that if carefully put together could potentially represent a step-change approach to the development of the green prosthetic socket".

Both UniMAP and Newcastle University are research intensive universities. Newcastle University is one of the Russell Group universities with a global presence. It has campuses in the State of Johor, Malaysia, and Singapore (where Assoc Prof. Goh is based). UniMAP is a Malaysian university located in the State of Perlis, the most northern state of Malaysia, with a economy predominated by agriculture. “By virtue of its economy, Perlis produces a lot of agricultural waste, such as pine apple leaf fibres. Given that the natural fibres are sequestrated carbon, there are advantages of turning the fibres to good use from a sustainability perspective. This will not only meet the objectives of UN SDG 12 for responsible consumption and production but also raise our ambitions to establish an ecosystem that embraces the local processing and supply of the natural fibres, fabrication of the prosthesis, and finally, the recycling industry, all of which could be carried out by the local workforce,” says Assoc Prof Goh. 

The researchers are assisted by a UniMAP research assistant and two Newcastle final-year project students, Ms Nurin Adilah Binte Yosre and Mr Andrew Tan, and a Newcastle post-doctoral researcher, Dr Wei Liang Lai. The team collaborates with other external parties, namely clinicians and clinical researchers at a local hospital in Perlis and in Singapore, a local prosthetic company in Perlis, and relevant policy makers in Perlis. 

For further enquiries and discussion for collaboration, please contact Assoc Prof Mohd Shukry Abdul Majid at [email protected] or Assoc Prof Kheng Lim Goh at [email protected] 

Published: 10 Apr 2022

Contact details:

Dr Kheng Lim Goh

172A Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8 #05-01
SIT Building @ Nanyang Polytechnic
Singapore 567739

+65 6908 6073
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Funding information:

Research Environment Links grants provide financial support for capacity-strengthening and collaboration activities to develop and sustain medium to long term relationships proposed by applicant institutions in partner countries and the UK.

All collaborations funded will establish new research environment links - or significantly develop existing links - between research groups, departments, or institutions with the potential for longer-term sustainability.

The key aim of each collaboration is to support capacity building in the partner institution in the following countries as well as to stimulate longer-term interactions between the partner country and the UK.