Two independent teams have made breakthroughs in the development of artificial skin, according to today’s issue of Nature Materials.

The teams, one from the University of California at Berkeley, the other from Stanford University in California, took different approaches to the challenge.

At Berkeley, Ali Javey, an associate professor of computer sciences, led a team that designed an electronic skin.  The e-skin uses nanowires made of germanium and silicon, rolled onto a sticky polyimide film, layered with nano-scale transistors, and topped with a pressure sensitive rubber. 

At Stanford, Zhenan Bao and her team used a pressure sensitive rubber film that changes thickness in response to pressure, and uses capacitors to measure the difference.

Bao’s artificial skin has the advantage of extreme sensitivity, while Javey’s has the advantage of flexibility. It’s hoped that one day these two characteristics can be combined.

Possible uses for touch sensitive artificial skin include both prosthetics and robotics.

A major challenge with prosthetics will be to interface the artificial skin with the human nervous system.  In the initial stages, a touch sensitive prosthetic would likely just transfer a signal to a location on the user’s healthy natural skin.  The eventual goal will be to feed the signals from the artificial skin directly to the user’s brain.

As for robotics, the ability to ‘feel’ through a mechanical interface could assist surgeons doing keyhole surgeries, and enhance automated machinery for better material handling.  It would also revolutionize the operation of remote exploration vehicles, like those used underwater or in space exploration, by improving their handling skills.