Engineers make artificial skin out of nanowires

Engineers in California have created a pressure-sensitive electronic material from semiconductor ‘nanowires’ that could allow robots to more easily adapt the amount of force needed to hold and manipulate a wide range of objects.

It is the first such material made out of inorganic single crystalline semiconductors. Previous attempts to develop an artificial skin relied upon organic materials because they are flexible and easier to process.

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

"Humans generally know how to hold a fragile egg without breaking it," said Javey, who added: "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."

The scientists also hope that in the longer term, the artificial skin could 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.

"The problem is that organic materials are poor semiconductors, which means electronic devices made out of them would often require high voltages to operate the circuitry," said Javey. "Inorganic materials, such as crystalline silicon, on the other hand, have excellent electrical properties and can operate on low power. They are also more chemically stable. But historically, they have been inflexible and easy to crack,” said Javey.

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