electronic skin

Jellyfish-inspired electronic ‘skin’ self-heals and is touch-sensitive

Image credit: National University of Singapore

Researchers have created an electronic ‘skin’ that is transparent, stretchable, touch-sensitive and can self-heal in aquatic environments, inspired by underwater invertebrates like jellyfish.

The team of scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) that developed the technology believe it has a range of uses such as water-resistant touchscreens and aquatic soft robots.

Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee has spent just over a year developing the material, in which time he has identified 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 touchscreens 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 created 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, allowing it to self-heal.

Elaborating on the advantages of this configuration, Tee explained: “Most conductive polymer gels such as hydrogels would swell when submerged in water or dry out over time in air. 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 being 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,” Tee added.

“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.

“Millions of tonnes of electronic waste from broken mobile phones, tablets, etc. 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,” he said.

“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.”

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