Touch sensitivity on gadgets and robots is nothing new. A few strategically placed sensors under a flexible, synthetic skin and you have pressure sensitivity. Add a capacitive, transparent screen to a device and you have touch sensitivity. However, Stanford University’s new “super skin” is something special: a thin, highly flexible, super-stretchable, nearly transparent skin that can respond to touch and pressure, even when it’s being wrung out like a sponge.
The brainchild of Stanford University Associate Professor of chemical engineering Zhenan Bao, this “super skin” employs a transparent film of spray-on, single-walled carbon nanotubes that sit in a thin film of flexible silicon, which is then sandwiched between more silicon.
After an initial stretch, which actually aligns the randomly sprayed-on conductive, carbon nanotubes into microscopic spring-like forms, the skin can be stretched and restretched again to twice its original size, without the springs or skin losing their resiliency. Darren Lipomi, a postdoctoral researcher who is part of Bao’s research team explained, “None of it causes any permanent deformation.”
This unique makeup allows the malleable skin to measure force response even as it’s being stretched, or “squeezed like a sponge.” Researchers noted that it can also sense touch and force at the same time.
This super skin is not simply a thicker, more flexible version of the touch screen on your iPhone 4S. Virtually all touch-sensitive smartphones feature transparent films that sense touch. However, these capacitive screens are only responding to the tiny electrical charge in your fingertips and do not actually know if you’re touching lightly or hammering the screen.
Flexible touch screens for computers and smartphones is one obvious super skin application idea, but the Stanford researchers have larger goals. They envision future robots wearing this flexible touch and pressure-sensitive skin. From there, the next logical step is replacement of skin on people, especially burn victims or those who have lost limbs.
Learn more in the video and then give us some of your ideas for how industry could use this super skin breakthrough.
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