Artificial ‘superhuman’ skin could help burn victims, amputees ‘feel’ again

Researchers have developed a new kind of sensor designed to let artificial skin sense pressure, vibrations, and even magnetic fields. Developed by engineers, chemists, and biologists at the University of Connecticut and University of Toronto, the technology could help burn victims and amputees “feel” again through their prosthetic skin.

“The type of artificial skin we developed can be called an electronic skin or e-skin,” Islam Mosa, a postdoctoral fellow at UConn, told Digital Trends. “It is a new group of smart wearable electronics that are flexible, stretchable, shapable, and possess unique sensing capabilities that mimic human skin.”

To create the sensor for the artificial skin, Mosa and his team wrapped a silicone tube with a copper wire and filled the tube with an iron oxide nanoparticle fluid. As the nanoparticles move around the tube, they create an electrical current, which is picked up by the copper wire. When the tube experiences pressure, the current changes.

Beyond its ability to sense environmental changes similar to human skin, the e-skin can even feel magnetic field and sound wave vibrations.

The goal was to develop an artificial skin that could sense beyond human capabilities, according to Abdelsalam Ahmed, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto who worked on the project.

“A big motivation to develop this e-skin sensor was to extend the capabilities of this technology to superhuman abilities,” he said. “We proved that e-skin can alarm humans of the surrounding danger before accidents happen.”

The researchers think the invention will find applications in hazard prevention electronics, rescue robotics, and next-generation remote health care monitoring.

Moving forward, the researchers will attempt to flatten the tubular prototype so that it can function more effectively as a skin layer. They’ll also need to make sure the e-skin is completely biocompatible.

The current prototype costs less than $5 per sensor, according to Mosa, though the market price is expected to be higher after further research and development, testing, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. The researchers have launched a company to commercialize the invention and aim to bring it to market in the next few years.

A paper detailing their work was published this week in the journal Advanced Materials.

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