Human skin may very well be one of the world’s most impressive sensor arrays. Able to detect temperature, pressure, touch and pain simultaneously, your skin’s sensory receptors feed you a constant data stream about the environment around you. Now, researchers have given much of that sensing ability to plastic e-skin.
Unlike prior skin-mimicking systems that could only detect touch, the new flexible sensor system developed by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology senses touch, humidity and temperature simultaneously, with touch sensitivity 10 times greater than current e-skins. Technion’s system uses a network of interconnected gold nanoparticles 5-8 nanometers in diameter, laid over a base of flexible polyethylene terephthalate (soda bottle plastic), to measure changes in the environment. Bending the e-skin, for example, brings the nanoparticles closer together or farther apart, changing the electrical conductivity between them. The scientists are able to change the material’s sensitivity by altering the thickness and construction of the base layer, enabling strain or crack detection in a variety of industrial applications.
Of course, the most exciting potential application is prosthetics, where touch and temperature sensitivity could could for the first time offer skin-like sensation. Paired with next-generation prosthetics that more closely mimic natural human hardware, this e-skin could eliminate many of the limitations faced by amputees, and bring us one step closer to the Terminator cybernetic future we’ve all been dreaming of.