The University of Texas at Arlington has obtained a patent for a highly sensitive electronic skin that may one day give prosthetic devices a keen sense of touch. The e-skin features a dense forest of flexible zinc oxide nanowires on its surface. As it comes in contact with something, each nanowire generates a small electric signal that indicates that is has been touched.
The device itself doesn’t require any external power source, as the nanowires are able to create their own electric current that’s enough to produce a useful signal. The nanowires are absolutely tiny, more than 200 times smaller than human hair. Because they are so small, a piece of e-skin only a few inches on a side will have millions of them. This provides the e-skin an impressive ability to sense things brushing against it, even more so than our natural human skin.
Because the nanowires are placed inside a flexible base, the entire device can be molded into different shapes that would match a prosthetic hand, for example.
In addition to having tactile sensing capabilities, the e-skin can also detect temperature changes, an important usability and safety factor for future prostheses.
“These sensors are highly sensitive and if they were brushed over a partial fingerprint, the technology could help identify who that person is,” said Zeynep Çelik-Butler, one of the leaders of the research. “Imagine people being able to ascertain a person’s identity with this hairy robot, as my students call it.”