Posted in | Medical Robotics

New Form of Stretchable Electronics Offers Robotic Hand a Sense of Touch

A research team from the University of Houston has announced a recent advancement in stretchable electronics that can serve as artificial skin, enabling a robotic hand to sense the difference between cold and hot, whilst also proving to be beneficial for an extensive range of biomedical devices.

Research led by Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering, has created an artificial skin that allows a robotic hand to sense hot and cold. Credit: University of Houston

The research, reported in the Science Advances journal, describes an innovative mechanism for creating stretchable electronics, a process that depends upon materials that are immediately available and those that could be scaled up for commercial production.

Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering and the paper’s lead author, said that this is the first research to produce a semiconductor in a rubber composite format, exclusively developed to enable the electronic components to maintain functionality even after the material is stretched by 50%.

Yu also said that this work is the first semiconductor in rubber composite format that allows stretchability without the need for any special mechanical structure.

He noted that conventional semiconductors are brittle and using them in otherwise stretchable materials has called for a complex system of mechanical accommodations. Besides being highly expensive, he also said that it is not only more complicated but also less stable than the latest discovery.

Our strategy has advantages for simple fabrication, scalable manufacturing, high-density integration, large strain tolerance and low cost.

Yu and the rest of the team – co-authors include first author Hae-Jin Kim, Kyoseung Sim and Anish Thukral, all with the UH Cullen College of Engineering – produced and used the electronic skin to show that a robotic hand is capable of sensing the temperature of iced and hot water in a cup. The skin was also capable of interpreting computer signals sent to the hand and reproducing the signals as American Sign Language.

The robotic skin can translate the gesture to readable letters that a person like me can understand and read.

Yu

The artificial skin is just one of the many applications. Researchers said the discovery of a material that is twistable, stretchable, bendable, and soft will have an impact on future development in soft wearable electronics, including human-machine interfaces, medical implants and health monitors.

Silicon-based polymer called polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS, and small nanowires were used to prepare stretchable composite semiconductor in order to create a solution that hardened into a material in which electric current was transported using nanowires.

We foresee that this strategy of enabling elastomeric semiconductors by percolating semiconductor nanofibrils into a rubber will advance the development of stretchable semiconductors, and … will move forward the advancement of stretchable electronics for a wide range of applications, such as artificial skins, biomedical implants and surgical gloves,” they wrote.

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