Machines can do amazing things, but they often have difficulty duplicating some of the most common tasks performed by the human body. Consider skin, for example. It is a flexible, protective layer that can also sense the pressure of objects that contact it. Skin’s properties make it possible for us to pick up a raw egg without crushing it, but also to grasp heavy objects with ease. It would be helpful if machines had the same abilities, for robots or smart prosthetic devices that can work in interaction with the wearer’s body.
Scientists at the University of Houston have developed a material that they believe is the first of its kind. They have succeeded in making a semiconductor that is made from a composite rubber. The result is a material that can bend and stretch up to 50 percent, without relying on any special mechanical structure such as spirals or grids. A silicon plastic is mixed with nanowires to create a conductive material. The result is an artificial skin that can detect bending, pressure, and even temperature changes.
The semiconductor rubber could lead to other applications besides artificial skin. It could be used as a wearable substrate to carry a variety of sensors. It also could be used to create “smart” gloves that can map the movement of a hand, leading to new ways for humans to interact with machines. Best of all, the material is made from readily available supplies and could be scaled for commercial production.