Engineers make artificial skin out of nanowires

Engineers at UC Berkeley have developed a pressure-sensitive electronic material from semiconductor nanowires that could one day give new meaning to the term "thin-skinned."

"The idea is to have a material that functions like the human skin, which means incorporating the ability to feel and touch objects," said Ali Javey, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and head of the UC Berkeley research team developing the artificial skin.

 
An artist's illustration of an artificial e-skin with nanowire active matrix circuitry covering a hand. The fragile egg illustrates the functionality of the e-skin device for prosthetic and robotic applications.

The artificial skin, dubbed "e-skin" by the UC Berkeley researchers, is described in a Sept. 12 paper in the advanced online publication of the journal Nature Materials. It is the first such material made out of inorganic single crystalline semiconductors.

A touch-sensitive artificial skin would help overcome a key challenge in robotics: adapting the amount of force needed to hold and manipulate a wide range of objects.

"Humans generally know how to hold a fragile egg without breaking it," said Javey, who is also a member of the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center and a faculty scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Materials Sciences Division. "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."

A longer term goal would be to use the e-skin to restore the sense of touch to patients with prosthetic limbs, which would require significant advances in the integration of electronic sensors with the human nervous system.