Artifical skin mimics human touch13th September 2010
Scientists working in biotechnology have managed to engineer a substance called "e-skin" that responds to touch in the same way as human skin.
People who require prosthetic limbs will soon be able to make use of the synthetic skin to regain their sense of touch.
The material has already undergone a lot of testing in the laboratory, and the scientists hope that it may soon have all sorts of applications, including in robotic technology, although a number of obstacles remain.
Lead researcher Ali Javey, an associate professor of computer sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, said that humans generally knew how to hold an egg without breaking it, and that robots would be able to use the technology to grip things without breaking them.
Current synthetic skin technology does not allow robots to read a newspaper, drink a cup of coffee, or brush teeth.
The newly developed artificial skin consists of a nanowire matrix rolled onto a sticky film, and will have enough sensitivity to perform such tasks.
The nanowires consist of the elements germanium and silicon, and connect to extremely small transistors and pressure-sensitive rubber.
The skin prototype can detect subtle pressure changes in the range that would be required for typing on keyboards and holding objects, up to 15 kilopascals.
In a separate, related study, chemist Zhenan Bao and a research team at nearby Stanford University made a rubber film that may also be useful as a synthetic skin.
Bao said that the response time of her team's skin was comparable with human skin, and that it responded to pressure changes within milliseconds and thousandths of a second.
Bao's team used capacitors to give rubber film the added property of pressure sensitivity.
John Boland, a nanoscientist at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, said that the new achievements were important.
Smell, taste, and touch are all much harder to replicate mechanically than sight or sound.
The sensors in human skin respond to a variety of pressure patterns and signal frequencies, unlike the artificial skin in the two recent studies.
Bao said that connecting artificial skin with the human nerve system would be a very challenging task, and that it would take a long time for scientists to work out.
She said that, in the very distant future, scientists hoped to make skin that performed like human skin, but that the new prototypes of artificial skin would not be able to send sensory information directly to the brain.
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