Scientists have developed a sensor for artificial skin that may not only help burn victims feel, but also lend humans 'superpowers' to detect sound waves and magnetic fields. Our skin's ability to perceive pressure, heat, cold, and vibration is a critical safety function that most people take for granted. However, burn victims, those with prosthetic limbs, and others who have lost skin sensitivity for one reason or another, cannot take it for granted, and often injure themselves unintentionally.
Researchers from University of Connecticut in the US wanted to create a sensor that can mimic the sensing properties of skin. Such a sensor would need to be able to detect pressure, temperature, and vibration. However, the artificial skin could do other things too, researchers said.
"It would be very cool if it had abilities human skin does not; for example, the ability to detect magnetic fields, sound waves, and abnormal behaviours," Islam Mosa from University of Connecticut. Researchers created such a sensor with a silicone tube wrapped in a copper wire and filled with a special fluid made of tiny particles of iron oxide just one billionth of a meter long, called nanoparticles.
The nanoparticles rub around the inside of the silicone tube and create an electric current. The copper wire surrounding the silicone tube picks up the current as a signal. When this tube is bumped by something experiencing pressure, the nanoparticles move and the electric signal changes. Sound waves also create waves in the nanoparticle fluid, and the electric signal changes in a different way than when the tube is bumped.
The researchers found that magnetic fields alter the signal too, in a way distinct from pressure or sound waves. Even a person moving around while carrying the sensor changes the electrical current, and the team found they could distinguish between the electrical signals caused by walking, running, jumping, and swimming.
Metal skin could perhaps act as an early warning for workers exposed to dangerously high magnetic fields. Because the rubber exterior is completely sealed and waterproof, it could also serve as a wearable monitor to alert parents if their child fell into deep water in a pool, for example.
"The inspiration was to make something durable that would last for a very long time, and could detect multiple hazards," Mosa said. The team has yet to test the sensor for its response to heat and cold, but they suspect it will work for those as well. The next step is to make the sensor in a flat configuration, more like skin, and see if it still works.