A coating of hairy electronic skin could soon help robots feel the slightest breath of air or detect the faint vibrations of a beating heart.
Kahp-Yang Suh and colleagues at Seoul National University in South Korea wove together thousands of individual polymer nanohairs to make a flexible touch sensor that is more sensitive than human skin.
The idea for the device came from the interlocking of cells in human hair and organs. These organically woven-together cells translate inputs of force into electrical signals that are then interpreted by the brain. Similar to their organic counterparts, the 50-nanometre-wide hairs of Suh's device twist and bend against each other when an external force like a beating heart or a soft touch is applied.
The contact between the hairs generates an electrical current which the sensor identifies as specific changes in pressure, shear or torsion. These results are displayed on a computer monitor in real time.
Researchers demonstrated the sensor's extreme sensitivity in more than 10,000 test cycles. It could detect the dynamic motion of a tiny water droplet bouncing on a hydrophobic plate and the physical force of a heartbeat. A skin of hairy sensors like these could clothe prosthetic limbs and robots. [Nature Materials]
Image: Changhyun Pang et al
New Scientist reports, explores and interprets the results of human endeavour set in the context of society and culture, providing comprehensive coverage of science and technology news.