Photo credit: University of Colorado Boulder

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have created electronic skin (or e-skin) that mimics the real thing. The breakthrough technology marks an exciting advancement that holds great promise for robotics, prosthetics and general healthcare. Their e-skin integrates all the major sensors of real skin, including an ability to heal and conform to the body. This could be the full package as far as artificial skin is concerned.

Skin is the largest organ in the human body and plays a vital role in interactions with our environment. It protects our organs and helps us sense temperature, pressure, vibration and touch. In short, our bodies have been able to create a protective suit with highly sensitive biology that allows us to respond to the outside world.

Because it is so exposed, skin is also extremely vulnerable to the very factors from which it protects us. Although the body can heal itself from minor injury, anything more drastic, such as a third-degree burn, requires medical intervention. While treatments have improved, the research community has been galvanized to develop “electronic skin” (or e-skin), which mimics real skin in every respect. Huge advances have already been made in this area, as a range of tactile, temperature and chemical sensors have been introduced to synthetic versions, as well as a range of structures that allow for increased malleability and conformity with the human body.

e-skin integrates all of the major sensors that our own skin includes, and it is also able to heal, conform to the body and be fully recyclable.

The researchers’ e-skin takes a range of sensors and layers them onto a polyimine substrate to pair responsiveness with robustness. Polyimine is a newly developed polymer with silver nanoparticles throughout that act as an electrical conduit, while strengthening the material and providing chemical stability. The bond between the polyimine substrate and the sensors is covalent. In lay terms, this means different atomic components share electrons, providing an extremely powerful and stable link. This allows the skin to easily conform to the curves of the body, while reducing potential stresses on the sensors.

the flexibility and robustness of this e-skin make it ideal for use in robotics, prosthetics and biomedical devices.

This is skin that heals and does so under moderate heat and pressure. It’s also recyclable – the component parts will separate in a solution at room temperature, allowing them to be reformed into new e-skin. Remarkably, after rehealing or recycling, the e-skin regains all of its original properties, once again becoming the equivalent of its organic counterpart.

Both processes are environmentally friendly and economical, leading to a great potential reduction in electronic waste pollution. Furthermore, the flexibility and robustness of this e-skin make it ideal for robotics, prosthetics and biomedical devices because the formula used in its development exhibits low stretchability and high strength. Just like natural skin, it can repeatedly move and expand, but will ultimately retract to more or less its original form.

The potential for this new technology is staggering. Throughout our lives, our bodies undergo massive stresses that inevitably lead to damage. As e-skins become more and more sophisticated, they are positioned to replicate any skin that becomes lost or harmed. This can lead to vast improvement in medical treatments and prosthetics. It’s a potentially revolutionary development with a wealth of promise for the future of healthcare.