E-skin that is soft and can communicate with the brain


by Peter Grad , Tech Xplore

In addition to being flexible and soft, the e-skin can simulate touch and operate effectively at low voltage. Credit: Stanford University’s Bao Research Group’s Jiancheng Lai and Weichen Wang
Stanford University researchers have created digital skin that can translate pressure and temperature feelings into electrical impulses that can be read by electrodes inserted into the brain.

Even though this capacity had been established years earlier, the inflexible and cumbersome components needed to transform digital signals were at that time.

Soft as, well, skin is this revolutionary e-skin. The conversion components are integrated smoothly into the skin, which has a thickness of a few tens of nanometers.

This innovation could lead to more organic communication between the brain and AI-powered prosthetic limbs. It’s also a positive step toward building robots that can “feel” human emotions like pressure, pain, and temperature. This might make it possible for robots assisting accident victims, for example, to recognize signals of comfort or distress more accurately.

“Our goal is to create a complete hand with numerous sensors that can detect temperature, vibration, pressure, and strain,” explains Stanford University chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao, who collaborated on the research. “Then we will be able to provide a true kind of sensation.”

According to the experts, one of the main reasons people decide against using prostheses is because they find it uncomfortable and strange not to have any sensory feedback.

Rat brain cells were used for the initial testing of the e-skin. When the animals’ cortexes were stimulated, their legs twitched. Different pressure levels were correlated with the degree of twitching.

“Electronic skin would eliminate the boundary between the living body and machine components,” the investigators stated.

The journal Science published its research, “The disappearing boundary between organism and machine,” this week.

Making a low-voltage, flexible e-skin was one of the initial challenges. Earlier attempts needed thirty volts. The group minimized the necessary voltage and increased efficiency by developing solid-state synaptic transistors and stretchable field-effect transistors.

“This new e-skin can detect stimuli similar to real skin and runs on just 5 volts,” stated Weichen Wang, one of the paper’s authors and a three-year project collaborator. “It provides electrical performance—such as low voltage drive, low power consumption, and moderate circuit integration—comparable to that of poly-silicon transistors.”

In March of last year, scientists from the University of Edinburgh disclosed a related breakthrough. In order “to give soft robots the ability to sense things only millimeters away, in all directions, very quickly,” the university team led by Yunjie Yang developed an e-skin made of a thin layer of silicone embedded with wires and sensitivity detectors.

The invention “gives robots a level of physical self-awareness similar to that of people and animals,” according to a press release from the university.

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