Scientists and engineers around the world are working hard to enhance biomedicine. Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder took a step forward when they made self-healing electronic skin, better known as e-skin for short. According to the scientists, in the future, e-skin should help robots feel pressure and temperature, and also help the amputees themselves feel it.
“What is unique here is that the chemical bonding of polyimine we use allows the e-skin to be both self-healing and fully recyclable at room temperature,” Jianliang Xiao, mechanical engineer at Boulder and lead author of the study said in a statement. “Given the millions of tons of electronic waste generated worldwide every year, the recyclability of our e-skin makes good economic and environmental sense.”
The e-skin is made out of thin, semi-transparent material. It acts similar to the human skin by sensing and measuring temperature, pressure, humidity, and air flow. Researchers gave more details regarding the new material in a study which they published on Friday in the journal Science Advances. Thanks to the skin, researchers will be able to make greater contributions to biomedicine by improving the safety of robots, and also adding contributions to other biomedical devices.
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“This has quite broad applications, in a sense, to enable sensation of otherwise passive systems,” Jianliang Xiao told Newsweek. Those are the electronic devices that we use, although they don’t work the same as our natural skin does. It can sense pressure on its own. This ability is of critical importance for improving prosthetic limbs.
For example, if researchers wrapped self-healing electronic skin around a prosthetic hand, the prosthetic will be enabled to feel pressure when holding a glass cup. Thanks to this capability, the user of the prosthetic hand wouldn’t accidentally drop or crush the cup, according to Xiao’s explanation to Newsweek.
“If you think about what real skin can do, real skin can prevent people getting burned [and] can prevent people getting hurt,” Wei Zhang, a chemistry professor at Boulder and co-author of the study, told Newsweek. “E-skin can basically mimic those [preventative] functions. At least that’s one big part of the electronic skin.”
The authors of the study explained that this breakthrough discovery also makes a great contribution to the robotics and human interaction with robots, as now there will be less chance of robots hurting people in the future.
“Sensing is critical because when human beings interact with robots, we want to make sure that robots don’t hurt people,” Xiao told Newsweek.
In the future, robots could even be advanced enough to take care of babies and with the help of the self-healing electronic skin, they would be able to handle it without hurting it, as they would know how much pressure to apply. The temperature feature of the skin would also help robots detect if babies have a fever.
“When the baby is sick, the robot can just use a finger to touch the surface,” Xiao said. In that case, “it can tell what the temperature of the baby is.”
The material used for skin is made out of a polymer network, which is called polyimine. Scientists also used silver nanoparticles. Thanks to the latter, the skin has strength, chemical stability and electrical conductivity. According to the researchers, e-skin can heal itself by combining compounds in ethanol with the material.
Thanks to the heat and pressure capabilities, self-healing electronic skin can effortlessly wrap around curved objects, including human skin and robotic hands. More importantly, the material is fully recyclable. According to the researchers, this feature is what makes e-skin unique.
“I think we are the first group to demonstrate recycling of such multifunctional e-skin,” Xiao told Newsweek.
E-skin can be recycled if the polymers get soaked in a solution which is used to degrade the polymers down and split the silver nanoparticles. The nanoparticles sink to the bottom of the solution. Xiao pointed out the importance of recycling due to the environmental pollution that we are facing around the world.
“What drives us to make such devices to be recyclable is because nowadays, we are facing very serious environmental pollution due to tens of millions of tons of electronic waste,” Xiao explained to Newsweek.
The concept of recyclability is becoming more and more important in order to preserve our planet and Zhang took it a step further. According to Newsweek, he is dreaming of a future where people will simply soak any electronic device (including laptops, cellphones, tablets) in a solution which would dissolve the materials in order for them to be used again.
This is one of the many inventions that will enhance robotics. Last year, scientists introduced origami-inspired muscles which will contribute to the better movement of robots and their flexibility.