With their muscles severed, people with limb amputation cannot sense the forces applied to their artificial limbs.
A malleable, self-healing, and fully recyclable electronic skin developed by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, however, may change that.
The work can pave way for improved prosthetic limbs that can give amputees the ability to sense temperature and pressure on their artificial limbs.
Known as e-skin, the thin and translucent material mimics some of the functions and mechanical properties of a real human skin. It is embedded with sensors to measure pressure, temperature, airflow, and humidity, which can help in the development of better prosthetics.
The e-skin's ability to sense pressure is a crucial factor for improving prosthetic limbs. An e-skin wrapped around a prosthetic hand would enable the artificial limb to sense pressure when holding a cup of glass. Knowing the amount of pressure the artificial hand applies on the cup may help prevent the amputee from accidentally breaking the glass.
"If you think about what real skin can do, real skin can prevent people getting burned [and] can prevent people getting hurt," said study researcher Wei Zhang from the University of Colorado Boulder.
"E-skin can basically mimic those [preventative] functions. At least that's one big part of the electronic skin."
The electronic skin also has potential applications in the field of robotics. It can be easily conformed to surfaces like human hands or robot arms by applying moderate heat and pressure, and without the need to introduce excessive stress.
"Let's say you wanted a robot to take care of a baby," Zhang said. "In that case you would integrate e-skin on the robot fingers that can feel the pressure of the baby. The idea is to try and mimic biological skin with e-skin that has desired functions."
Capable Of Healing Itself
Another remarkable property of the electronic skin is its ability to heal itself albeit the process involved is not as remarkable as that seen in the robots featured in the movie Terminator.
The healing of broken or cut e-skin is done by soaking it into a recycling solution, after which the electronic skin regains the properties of the original e-skin.
"These properties of the e-skin yield an economical and eco-friendly technology that can find broad applications in robotics, prosthetics, health care, and human-computer interface," the researchers wrote in their study which was published in the journal Science Advances on Feb. 9.