Kim et al./Nature Communications
By Sarah Fecht
Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by an amputee’s thoughts or muscle movements already exist. But what if they could also sense the environment and then send that information back to the amputee’s nervous system?
In order to create prosthetics that can function more like real body parts, scientists are designing artificial skins that pick up on tactile information. So far, these skins have gotten very good at sensing pressure—in fact, a skin designed by Stanford engineers is 1,000 times more sensitive than human skin. Another is self-healing.
But a new skin built by researchers in South Korea may be the smartest artificial skin yet. It’s stretchy, like real skin, and it can sense pressure, temperature, and humidity. It even has a built-in heater so it feels like living tissue. The researchers tested the artificial skin on a prosthetic hand, and they hope that some day, it will interface with a patient’s nerves so amputees can feel everything the fake skin feels.
“The prosthetic hand and laminated electronic skin could encounter many complex operations such as hand shaking, keyboard tapping, ball grasping, holding a cup of hot or cold drink, touching dry or wet surfaces and human to human contact,” they write in the paper, which was published today in Nature Communications.
The bulk of the new skin is composed of a flexible, transparent silicone material called polydimethylsiloxane — or PDMS. Embedded within it are silicon nanoribbons that generate electricity when they’re squished or stretched, providing a source of tactile feedback. They can also sense whether an object is hot or cold.
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