Engineers at UC-Berkeley have created an electronic skin material from nanowires that can sense touch and pressure, much like human skin. Known as e-skin, the nanowire mesh of germanium and silicon applied to a sticky polymide film has the potential to restore the sense of touch and feel to people who have lost a limb.
One prototype measures about 7.6 square inches and can detect pressures between 0 and 15 kilopascals--the kinds of pressures experienced while typing or holding a small object. The new rubber skin changes its thickness in response to changes in pressure, which is then measured and controlled by built-in capacitors.
Engineers are addressing power consumption and flexibility challenges in the organic materials used in creating e-skin. New research has led engineers to consider inorganic, tiny strips of bendable wires and low voltage levels without sacrificing the flexibility needed to mimic human touch.
Humans draw on experience and their sense of touch to cradle a flower or egg without damaging it. Yet they can tighten a wheel lug with a hundred pounds of torque and know approximately when the lug is tight enough. This puts the emphasis on tactile sensory perception and the real challenge for e-skin: connecting the artificial skin with the human nervous system.
Researchers noted that e-skin is the first truly macroscale integration of ordered nanowire materials for a functional system. The technique can be potentially scaled up. What limits the size of e-skin is the size of the processing tools currently in use.
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Alex A. Kecskes has written hundreds of published articles on health/fitness, "green" issues, TV/film entertainment, restaurant reviews and many other topics. As a former Andy/Belding/One Show ad agency copywriter, he also writes web content, ads, brochures, sales letters, mailers and scripts for national B2B and B2C clients.