A team of Stanford chemists and engineers have pioneered a new kind of plastic skin that might one day make it possible for us to build prosthetics that not only recreate the sensation of touch, but can patch themselves up after being damaged — just like real human flesh. Developing this new e-skin, as reported this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, required researchers to first create a self-healing material that could also conduct electricity. To accomplish this, says Elizabeth Armstrong Moore at CNET, they started with a plastic polymer composed of "long chains of molecules linked up via hydrogen bonds" — imagine a flexible plastic that feels like saltwater taffy — that really can heal itself. But what makes the plastic skin truly incredible is the rate at which it heals. Kelly Servick at Stanford News explains:
The researchers took a thin strip of the material and cut it in half with a scalpel. After gently pressing the pieces together for a few seconds, the researchers found the material gained back 75 percent of its original strength and electrical conductivity. The material was restored close to 100 percent in about 30 minutes.
Researchers also combined the plastic polymer with tiny particles of a nickel polymer to increase the e-skin's strength and electrical conductivity. It's this electrical circuitry that allows the plastic skin to be so sensitive that it can detect minute differences in the pressure of a handshake. The hope is that one day this electrical conductivity will be able to communicate touch to some sort of central nervous system.
The technology also possesses "cyborg potential beyond its application in prosthetics," says Natasha Lenard at Salon: Imagine electronics that heal themselves in minutes, or wires that can self-attach after being severed. In other words, feel free to drop your iPhone 12 as many times as you please.
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