Researchers at Colorado University-Boulder are attempting to advance the way that robots interact and heal. Their electronic skin, also known as e-skin, not only mimics the malleable properties of the human dermis and epidermis, which contains a malleability allowing it to heal with time. The e-skin allows for the potential use as a connective device between humans and non-humans.
The skin is thought to be best suited for robotics and healthcare applications, as its electronic properties that reflect the functions of human skin aren’t going to be used to make humans more rapidly-healing than they already are.
Let’s say you wanted a robot to take care of a baby, said Wei Zhang, an associate professor in CU Boulder's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry who contributed to the project. In that case, you would integrate e-skin on the robot fingers that can feel the pressure of the baby. The idea is to try and mimic biological skin with e-skin that has desired functions.
As documented by the team’s paper in Science Advances, the e-skin’s ability to sense temperature, humidity, flow, and tactile properties comes from a series of sensors which make it nearly indistinguishable from the properties of human skin, appearance aside.
Further, the e-skin’s covalently bonded dynamic network polymer called polyimine combines with silver nanoparticles to afford the skin malleability, subtle strength, and chemical stability, properties which combine to provide an effect reminiscent of human skin. The difference is, the e-skin also has electrical conductivity due to this array of components.
What is unique here is that the chemical bonding of polyimine we use allows the e-skin to be both self-healing and fully recyclable at room temperature, said Jianliang Xiao, associate professor at CU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Given the millions of tons of electronic waste generated worldwide every year, the recyclability of our e-skin makes good economic and environmental sense.
Various labs across the country are working on creating e-skins which presumably will have to pass the benchmark set by the CU team. How they will do so remains to be seen, as this version of electronic skin has a confluence of properties and capabilities that serve to advance the field significantly.