Researchers from Stanford University have developed a new kind of advanced synthetic skin.
This new ‘skin’ is notable in that it can mimic a sense of touch, through the use of embedded sensors.
These sensors detect how hard they are being pressed and generate an electric signal to deliver this sensory input directly to a living brain cell.
Developed by Dr Zhenan Bao, the synthetic skin also maintains the general elastic properties of natural skin, able to stretch over a given area.
“This is the first time a flexible, skin-like material has been able to detect pressure and also transmit a signal to a component of the nervous system,” said Bao.
In order to achieve this, Bao’s team of 17 researchers built their ‘skin’ in two layers, with each ply performing a separate function.
The top layer functions as a sensor able to detect pressure with the same range as human skin – “from a light finger tap to a firm handshake”. The sensor makes use of carbon nanotubes in a ‘waffle pattern’ which conduct electricity when compressed.
The second layer of the skin functions as a circuit able to transport the electrical signals from the first layer and translate them into biochemical stimuli compatible with nerve cells in an organism.
To manufacture these high tech layers, the Stanford University team turned to PARC, a subsidiary of Xerox. The company helped them use technology similar to that used in inkjet printers to deposit the flexible circuits onto a plastic substrate.
Finally, the researchers used a line of mouse brain cells in order to simulate the human nervous system to prove that their synthetic skin could transmit signals to nerves.
Bao’s team hopes that one day their skin will enable a new generation of prosthetic limbs with a sense of touch.
This being said, there is still much work to be done, as their current skin can only detect compression.
Further refinements of their technology would be needed in order to provide similar functionality to natural skin, including the ability to detect changes in temperature and texture.