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Many of the worlds greatest inventions have been inspired by nature. Some of the examples are Japanese Bullet trains which take their shape from the aerodynamic kingfisher and velcro which was inspired by burrs from weeds.
Recently, scientists from the National University of Singapore has taken inspiration from jellyfish to design a self-healing, stretchable, touch-sensitive electronic skin that could have applications to develop soft robots and even water-resistant touch screens.
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"We wondered how we could make an artificial material that could mimic the water-resistant nature of jellyfishes and yet also be touch-sensitive," said Benjamin Tee, lead researcher on the study, in a press release.
The research team, led by Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee took a year to develop the material in collaboration with Tsinghua University and the University of California Riverside.
Stretchy skin sensitive even when wet
Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee was part of the team that developed the first self-healing skin back in 2012. “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 touchscreens which often need to be used in wet weather conditions.”
Tee continued, “With this idea in mind, we began to look at jellyfishes — that 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.”
The team achieved its goal by creating a gel consisting of a fluorocarbon-based polymer with a fluorine-rich ionic liquid. In combination, the ‘polymer network interacts with the ionic liquid via highly reversible ion-dipole interactions, which allows it to self-heal.’
Previously self-healing materials have swelled when wet and shrunk when dry, this unique material can retain its shape in both wet and dry surroundings and work effectively in sea water and even in acidic or alkaline environments.
Soft robots more human-friendly
The skin is created by printing the novel material into electronic circuits. the electrical properties of the material change when it is touched or pressed or under strain. These changes can then be measured and converted into legible electrical signals that can then be applied to a variety of different sensors applications.
“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,” added Assistant Professor Tee, who is also from the NUS Biomedical Institute for Global Health Research and Technology.
The soft stretchy and waterproof materials have many advantages. It can be used to further close the gap between humans and machines. Its soft properties make it more compliant for human and machine interactions. The materials ability to self-heal could also pave the way for zero waste electronics.
Currently, millions of tonnes of waste are created every year from discarded broken electronic devices. Soft devices that can heal themselves might mean a lot less electronic waste in the world.