Using a process described as “a lint roller in reverse,” engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, have created a pressure-sensitive electronic artificial skin from semiconductor nanowires.
This “e-skin,” as it’s called, could one day be used to allow robots to perform tasks that require both grip and a delicate touch, or to provide a sense of touch in patients’ prosthetic limbs.
“Humans generally know how to hold a fragile egg without breaking it,” said Ali Javey, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and head of the UC Berkeley research team. “If we ever wanted a robot that could unload the dishes, for instance, we’d want to make sure it doesn’t break the wine glasses in the process. But we’d also want the robot to be able to grip a stock pot without dropping it.”
Some previous attempts at artificial skin have used organic materials, as they are flexible and relatively easy to process. Their main drawback has been that they are poor semiconductors, so devices using them would require large amounts of power. The e-skin, however, is made from inorganic single crystalline semiconductors. It requires only a small amount of power, is reportedly more chemically stable than organic skin, and maintains a high degree of flexibility thanks to its wire strip construction.