E-Skin: Practical applications of the sci-fi invention

By Tripti Chanda

There has been a recent development in the field of biotechnology, specifically e-skin, which has the potential to change the predicted future and the field of robotics as we know it. This technology which seemed fictional till only a little while ago might even be commercially available for various applications soon.

The past

The concept of electronic skin has been around for some time. The objective of a robot, to recreate a human and to be able to replicate humanity would not have been possible without replicating an integral organ like the skin. It has been possible to receive input from various sensors to make the machine aware of its surroundings but these sensors are just giving back values without feeling. The machine just has some data, not any sensation.

We have since moved on and there have been many concepts of electronic skins made ranging from a European product used to virtually manipulate the environment using magnets to a Japanese one which can be used to simulate characters in a video game. What sets this latest development apart is that it can feel and repair like a human skin which has not been attempted before.

The revolution

The new e-skin is a product of the researchers at The University of Colorado Boulder. The skin is basically a yellow adhesive-like film which can be recycled. It has the basic sensors to be able to sense pressure, temperature, humidity and air flow. It is made of dynamic covalent thermoset (polyamine) which is a matrix made out of commercially available materials (terephthaladehyde, diethylenetriamine and tris(2-aminoethyl)amine in ethanol). It has silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) within it. This combination of components gives the e-skin its unique properties.

Many of the traditional properties of a human skin have been attempted to be replicated. It is soft, malleable and has mechanical and chemical stability. The texture of the electronic one though is not as stretchable as the human skin. This was achieved using serpentine and mesh-like structures to produce a more cell-like organisation. Along with many easily available components, some advanced ones were also used – like single-crystal silicon, nanowires, organic semiconductors, graphene, nanoparticles and nanotubes – for a much more superior performance.

Process of regeneration

The greatest achievement of this technology has been the capacity of recycling. In a world full of pollution and excess waste generation, technology like this is the only way forward. Each e-skin can be “healed” with the resultant repaired product having properties comparable to the original unharmed product.

If the skin is cut, torn or harmed; the affected area can be fixed by introducing the original three-component matrix in it and then the whole area being given the heat treatment. In such a way, the “injury” can be fixed in 10 minutes when heated to about 60? Celsius and in about 30 minutes when at room temperature. The method that this e-skin uses is different from the usual ways of using physical bondings at the surface of the fault. In this, the matrix “grows” the e-skin over the “injury” by synthesising the polymers required and forming covalent bonds leaving no interfaces much like the healing in a human skin.

If the skin is irreparably damaged, there is also a possibility of dissolving it completely down to its matrix and nanoparticles to build another skin of comparable properties to its original. This can be done within ten hours at room temperature.

Future of the technology

The future of such a technology has various applications. Ranging from prosthetics to humanoid robots, this will cover every stratum of the society. A robot which would be able to feel through its skin would not require external and extra equipment to get the same results also making the sensing of its surrounding non-invasive to the surrounding itself, letting the machine experience the environment rather than changing it.

This would be great for prosthetic requirements as the electronic appendage or addition to the body will be able to mimic human function making it easier for rehabilitation of the patient and will reduce the loss of opportunity experienced by such individuals. This technology also has a resounding environmental effect, it is promoting a waste-free society. Just like the e-skin, if all the electronic devices used by the public could be repaired instead of being discarded and if the devices which are not salvageable could be just reduced to its elementary components to build new and equally good devices, would negate the entirety of e-waste generated. This product will give rise to greater developments in the field of wearable technology.

Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons