Researchers from Stanford have developed soft & stretchable electronic skin based on the sensory operational ability of real skin. Thus paving a great pathway for technological innovation where humans and machines coexist in a production line, along with a ray of hope for those with prosthetic limbs.
According to Weichen Wang and his team, the idea is to restore sensation and motor abilities simultaneously. However, a major challenge to their study was the absence of a sophisticated and larger circuit to create a fully functioning electronic skin.
Under such a condition, the recent study was no less than a prominent ray of hope, showing remarkable success in lab rats. The researchers, pressing the button of the rat’s electronic skin (e-skin), witnessed a connection between the rat’s e-skin and the brain over electronic pulses. The animal responded by twitching its legs.
The Electronic Skin
Scientists have long dreamt of creating prosthetic limbs to restore movement and help humans regain their regular life. This goes as restoring the ability to sense temperature, pressure, and vibration.
And for that, they have always tried to impersonate the human skin’s working technique – especially the ‘touch sensation.’ However, it’s not that simple, and millions of receptors under the skin offer different reactions when squeezed, poked, or scaled. Also, the team had to make something stretchable, like the biological skin, which can send electric pulses to the brain.
Finally, the Stanford team has developed an artificial skin capable of mimicking sensory feedback and other natural properties of the skin. Paving the way for great innovations across medical and robotic devices.
One of the prominent hurdles was to bring together everything with only human skin-like materials – said Zhenan Bao (part of the team).
E-Skin’s Working Mechanism
The electronic skin (e-skin) has a networked layer of stretchable organic transistors that can receive and transmit electrical signals. Combining all the layers, the skin stands at 25 to 50 microns in thickness – as thin as usual skin.
The research team engineered a skin type that can sense pressure, strain, chemicals, and temperature. Then also turn this sensory information into an electrical pulse. As an added benefit, the e-skin requires only 5 volts of electricity to function fully.
The team went on to test the actual abilities of the e-skin by implanting it into a live rat. On touching the rat’s e-skin, the team noticed a pulse to be transmitted by a wire into the rat’s brain, into the somatosensory cortex – which is responsible for processing physical sensations.
For humans, the team is planning to come up with an upgraded version of the electronic skin. They will rely on wireless communication techniques to establish a relationship between the electrical stimulator (next to a nerve) and the electronic skin.
Why Electronic Skin?
How would that feel if you were picking up a glass of beer but could not sense the cold by touching it? In regular life, sense, smell, and taste are all important factors for a human being. Thus helping them with better decision-making and seamless movements. However, unwanted circumstances do hamper one’s ability to touch and sense. The innovation of electronic skin will help restore the sensing abilities of human beings, making them capable enough to touch and feel objects, even while using prosthetic limbs.
Also, there are modern industries where humans and robots work together in production. And e-skin would be of great help when added to the robots. Thus, they can sense heat, cold, and vibrations as regular humans would. This phenomenon adds to the safety of industries where robots pass the rightfully manufactured products.
The research team is quite hopeful about the innovation so far. They also aim to help people regain regular momentum and sense loss in accidents.