3-in-1 hybrid material for next generation smart artificial skin

The “intelligent skin” created by Anna Maria Cocklitt is closely related to human skin. It simultaneously detects pressure, humidity and temperature and generates electronic signals. A more sensitive robot or a more intelligent artificial intelligence is thus possible.

The skin is the largest sensory organ and at the same time the protective covering of man. It simultaneously “senses” multiple sensitive inputs and returns information about humidity, temperature and pressure back to the brain. For Anna Maria Cocklit, one of the elements with such a multifaceted feature is a kind of ‘holy grail’ in the technology of intelligent synthetic materials. In particular, robotics and smart synthetics will benefit from a better integrated and more accurate sensing system similar to human skin. ” -In-one hybrid component has succeeded in creating “smart skin”. The results of this leading study have been published in the journal Advanced materials technology.

Delicate as a finger

For nearly six years, the team has been working on smart skin development as part of Coclite’s ERC Smart Core project. With 2,000 separate sensors per square millimeter, the hybrid component is more sensitive than the human finger. Each of these sensors is made up of a unique combination of materials: a smart polymer in the form of a hydrogel and a piezoelectric zinc oxide shell inside. Cocklit explains: “Hydrogel can absorb water and thus expand with changes in humidity and temperature. In doing so, it exerts pressure on piezoelectric zinc oxide, which reacts with electrical signals to this and all other mechanical stresses. The result is an ultra- Thin material that simultaneously reacts with force, humidity, and temperature at extremely high spatial resolutions and emits corresponding electronic signals. “The first specimens of artificial skin are six micrometers thick, or 0.006 millimeters. In comparison, the human epidermis is 0.03 to 2 millimeters thick. Human skin perceives things from the size of about one square millimeter. Smart skin has a thousand times smaller resolutions and can record very small objects for human skin (such as microorganisms).

Nanoscale material processing

The individual sensor layers are very thin and at the same time equipped with full-surface sensor components. This was made possible thanks to a unique process in the world for which researchers for the first time combined three known methods of physical chemistry: chemical vapor deposition for hydrogel material, atomic layer deposition for zinc and nanoemprint lithography for polymer models. Lithographic preparation of the polymer template was the responsibility of the “Hybrid Electronics and Structuring” research group led by Barbara Stadlober. The group is part of the Joannium Research Institute of Materials located in Weije.

Several areas of application are now open for hybrid ingredients such as skin. In healthcare, for example, sensor components can independently detect microorganisms and flag them accordingly. We can also imagine artificial devices that give the wearer information about temperature or humidity, or robots that can perceive their environment more sensitively. In the process of application, smart skin acquires a decisive advantage: sensitive nanorods – the “intelligent heart” of the material – are produced using a vapor-based production process. For example, this process is already well-established in factories that manufacture integrated circuits. Smart skin products can be easily scaled up and applied to existing production lines.

Smart skin features have now been further optimized. Anna Maria Cocklit and her team – especially doctoral student Taher Abu Ali – want to expand the temperature range where the material reacts and improve the elasticity of artificial skin.

Source of the story

Materials provided by Graz University of Technology. Original text by Susan Philzweiser. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.

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