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From Star Wars to Stanford - scientists develop artificial skin

posted 2 Feb 2011, 05:37 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 2 Feb 2011, 05:39 ]

Scientists at Stanford University have developed electronic skin that is sensitive enough to feel a butterfly's soft step. It's an innovation that could pave the way for the creation of artificial skin to replace damaged human skin.

REUTERS, LUCASFILM, NASA - In a laboratory at Stanford University, researchers have developed an artificial skin that not so long ago existed only in the realm of science fiction .

More than 30 years ago, George Lucas gave us a glimpse of the future in 'Star Wars", with a prosthetic hand

wrapped in artificial skin. Stanford's version is not quite as advanced as Luke Skywalker's but according to lead researcher Zhenan Bao, there's no doubt that science fiction is becoming science fact.

ZHENAN BAO, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING:

"So what we have done is kind of the initial steps of making skin that can sense touch or certain external signals and convert it into an electrical signal."

The skin comprises an ultra thin sheet of rubber sandwiched between layers of electrodes. As pressure is applied, the rubber compresses, changing the amount of electrical charge it can store. That change is detected by the electrodes which enable the rubber to transmit what it senses.

While flexible sensor technology is not new, the key innovation in this sensor is the millions of microscopic, nano sized pyramids moulded on to the rubber film which allow for greater surface area, better contact and far greater sensitivity. .

ZHENAN BAO, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, SAYING:

"Our sensor is very sensitive. Among all of the flexible, stretchable, sensors ours is probably 1000 times more sensitive."

The researchers say a lot of work has to be done before their artificial skin can be used to replace human skin. While they have managed to convert pressure into electrical signals, they must now develop an interface between the artificial skin, human nerves and ultimately the brain.

Researcher Stefan Mannsfield says it's only a matter of time.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) STEFAN MANNSFIELD, SCIENTIST AT SLAC - NATIONAL ACCELERATOR LABORATORY, SAYING:

"It is the technology that will one day enable people who don't have functional skin anymore, such as burn patients, to sense their surroundings again."

The researchers initially see their skin as a possible enhancement for the touch technology in devices like IPods and IPhones. They also envision possibilities

for giving robots of the future a sense of touch.

Both Bao and Mansfield are excited about where their research is heading. They say they hope their efforts will eventually lead to an artificial skin that will improve lives around the world, not just in a galaxy far, far away.

Ben Gruber, Reuters.

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