Self-Heating, Water-Resistant Electronic Skin is here

Self-Heating, Water-Resistant Electronic Skin is here

Self-Heating, Water-Resistant Electronic Skin is here
Image Credits: Nature

Scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have created a transparent electronic skin that is stretchable, touch-sensitive and has the ability to repair itself in both dry and wet conditions.

The inspiration for this amazing discovery came from jellyfish and other underwater invertebrates. Similar functionality has been incorporated into this invention that could prove extremely useful in different fields of life like aquatic soft robots and water-resistant touchscreens. The researching team spent more than a year on this extraordinary material whose discovery was first reported on 15th February 2019.

The technology of self-healing electronic skin is not new for Benjamin Tee, the Lead Researcher who is also an Assistant Professor from the Department of Material Sciences and Engineering at the NUS. He has been working on this technology for a number of years and was a part of the team that developed the first-ever self-healing electronic skin sensors in 2012. Despite the success of those experiments, Tee acknowledged that there was plenty of room for improvement in that electronic skin. He tried to explain that idea to the world by saying,

“One of the challenges with many self-healing materials today is that they are not transparent and they do not work efficiently when wet. These drawbacks make them less useful for electronic applications such as touchscreens which often need to be used in wet weather conditions. With this idea in mind, we began to look at jellyfishes — they are transparent and able to sense the wet environment. So, we wondered how we could make an artificial material that could mimic the water-resistant nature of jellyfishes and yet also be touch sensitive.”

The Composition of the Electronic Skin

In order to achieve this revolutionary feat, the team of 8 researchers created a gel consisting of a fluorocarbon-based polymer with a fluorine-rich ionic liquid. The combination of these two chemicals enables the electronic skin to heal itself. Scientifically, the interaction of the ionic liquid with the polymer leads to some highly reversible ion-dipole interactions, which are responsible for these healing capabilities. Tee further elaborated that this electronic skin retains its shape in dry as well as wet conditions, unlike other conductive polymers. Tee described this attribute in the following words:

“Most conductive polymer gels such as hydrogels would swell when submerged in water or dry out over time in air. What makes our material different is that it can retain its shape in both wet and dry surroundings. It works well in sea water and even in acidic or alkaline environments.”

In order to create this electronic skin, this gel was printed into electronic circuits. The stretchable nature of the material allows its electrical properties to change when touched or pressed. This change can be measured and converted into readable electronic signals to create a vast array of different sensor applications. Talking about the potentials of this electronic skin, Tee said,

“The 3D printability of our material also shows potential in creating fully transparent circuit boards that could be used in robotic applications. We hope that this material can be used to develop various applications in emerging types of soft robots.”

Soft Robots

Most of the soft electronics, including soft robots, strive to mimic biological tissues so that they could be more mechanically compliant for human-machine interactions. Given the fact that this electronic skin is waterproof, it can also be used for water-resistant applications and amphibious robots. Similarly, it has been designed in a way to reduce waste. Tee mentioned that electronic waste is a massive problem in our technological world as millions of tons of electronic waste is generated every year and our self-healing skin could play an important role in controlling this issue. He referred to the importance of this invention by saying,

“We are hoping to create a future where electronic devices made from intelligent materials can perform self-repair functions to reduce the amount of electronic waste in the world.

Tee mentioned that currently, they are relying on the comprehensive properties of this electronic skin for developing new human-machine communication interfaces. Having said that, he expressed hope that they will continue exploring more and more about this material in the future for the sake of improving it as much as possible.  

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