Every year we’re learning more and more about medicine and sustainable energy, and when you put the two together, you get the idea for the solar-powered skin being developed by University of Glasgow engineers. They’ve built upon their previous “electronic skin” idea to create synthetic skin and power it using the sun’s rays.

solar-powered skin
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Solar-powered skin made from graphene

A research paper published in the Advanced Functional Materials journal (report via Controlled Environment magazine) focuses on how the engineering team headed up by Dr. Ravinder Dahiya developed the solar-powered skin. They found a way to use the sun to power their synthetic skin so that amputees with limbs covered in the skin would be able to feel again, almost like real skin.

The team originally developed what they call “electronic skin” from graphene and used it to cover prosthetic hands. Graphene is a type of graphite that’s extremely flexible and also very tough; even though it’s only as thick as one atom, it’s stronger than steel. It also conducts electricity and is transparent. In fact, about 98% of the light that strikes the surface of graphene passes right through it because of its optical transparency, and it is this property that makes it perfect for using the sun’s rays to generate power.

How the solar-powered skin works

Dr. Dahiya and his team took the electronic skin they originally developed and then integrated photovoltaic cells capable of generating power into it. He said the new solar-powered skin is able to make “very sensitive pressure measurements,” meaning that prosthetic hands covered in it are able to perform tasks that are more challenging for other types of prosthetic hands, such as grip soft materials.

The solar-powered skin uses only 20 nanowatts of power per square-centimeter, which he said is easy to capture using even “the poorest-quality photovoltaic cells currently available on the market.” Although at this time, the energy captured by the cells on the solar-powered skin isn’t able to be stored, but Dr. Dahiya’s team is looking for ways to store the excess power in batteries so that it can be used whenever it’s needed. They’re also looking for ways to use the power-generation technology embedded in their solar-skin to run the drive motors for the prosthetic hand underneath the skin, which would enable them to build a prosthetic limb that’s fully “energy-autonomous.”

The engineering team is also working on strategies to 3D print sensitive prosthetic limbs to make them more affordable.