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3in1 hybrid material for the next generation of smart artificial skin, © Lunghammer – TU Graz

The skin is the largest sensory organ of the human being. It functions as a protective coat and allows us to feel touch and other sensory impressions. In the process, the skin reports information about moisture, temperature and pressure to the brain. Researcher Assoc. Prof. Dr. Anna Maria Coclite and her team at the Institute of Solid State Physics at TU Graz have succeeded in developing the three-in-one hybrid material “Smartskin” for the next generation of artificial, electronic skin using a novel process.

With 2,000 individual sensors per square millimetre, the hybrid material is more sensitive than human fingertips. Each of these sensors consists of a special combination of materials: a smart polymer in the form of a hydrogel inside and a shell of piezoelectric zinc oxide. Coclite explains: “The hydrogel can absorb water and thus expands with changes in humidity and temperature. In doing so, it exerts pressure on the piezoelectric zinc oxide, which responds to these and all other mechanical stresses with an electrical signal.” The material reacts simultaneously to force, humidity and temperature and emits corresponding electronic signals. In addition, it is extremely thin at six micrometres, or 0.006 millimetres. By comparison, the human epidermis is 0.03 to 2 millimetres thick. The “Smartskin” can also register objects, such as micro-organisms, that are too small for human skin.

For Anna Maria Coclite, a material with such multisensory properties is “a kind of ‘holy grail’ in the technology of intelligent artificial materials. In particular, robotics and smart prosthetics would benefit from a better integrated, more precise sensory system similar to human skin.”

The Smartskin is a wafer-thin material that reacts simultaneously to force, moisture and temperature and emits corresponding electronic signals, © Lunghammer – TU Graz

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