Self-healing electronic skin inspired by jellyfish
Scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have taken inspiration from underwater invertebrates like jellyfish to create an electronic skin with similar functionality. Just like a jellyfish, the electronic skin is transparent, stretchable, touch-sensitive and self-healing in aquatic environments.
The research was led by NUS Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee, who worked with collaborators from Tsinghua University and the University of California, Riverside for over a year to develop the new material. Asst Prof Tee was part of the team that developed the first ever self-healing electronic skin sensors in 2012, and so was able to identify the key obstacles that self-healing electronic skins have yet to overcome.
“One of the challenges with many self-healing materials today is that they are not transparent and they do not work efficiently when wet,” he said. “These drawbacks make them less useful for electronic applications such as touch screens, 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.”
They succeeded in this endeavour by creating a gel consisting of a fluorocarbon-based polymer with a fluorine-rich ionic liquid. When combined, the polymer network interacts with the ionic liquid via highly reversible ion–dipole interactions, which allows it to self-heal.
“Most conductive polymer gels such as hydrogels would swell when submerged in water or dry out over time in air,” Asst Prof Tee said. “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.”
The electronic skin is created by printing the novel material into electronic circuits. As a soft and stretchable material, its electrical properties change when touched, pressed or strained. “We can then measure this change and convert it into readable electrical signals to create a vast array of different sensor applications,” Asst Prof 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, and soft electronics in general, aim to mimic biological tissues to make them more mechanically compliant for human–machine interactions. In addition to conventional soft robot applications, this novel material’s waterproof technology enables the design of amphibious robots and water-resistant electronics.
One further advantage of this self-healing electronic skin is the potential it has to reduce waste. Asst Prof Tee explained, “Millions of tonnes of electronic waste from devices like broken mobile phones or tablets are generated globally every year. 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.”
The team’s invention has been described in Nature Electronics and was featured on the journal’s front cover on 15 February 2019. Looking forward, Asst Prof Tee and his team are hoping to explore further possibilities of this material.
“Currently, we are making use of the comprehensive properties of the material to make novel optoelectronic devices, which could be utilised in many new human–machine communication interfaces,” Asst Prof Tee said.
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