Stanford engineers have created a plastic "skin" that can detect how hard it is being pressed and generate an electric signal to deliver this sensory input directly to a living brain cell.
The finding may ultimately lead to a flexible electronic fabric embedded with sensors that could cover a prosthetic limb and replicate some of skin's sensory functions, researchers said.
The work takes another step towards replicating one aspect of touch, the sensory mechanism that enables us to distinguish the pressure difference between a limp handshake and a firm grip.
"This is the first time a flexible, skin-like material has been able to detect pressure and also transmit a signal to a component of the nervous system," said Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University.
The heart of the technique is a two-ply plastic construct: the top layer creates a sensing mechanism and the bottom layer acts as the circuit to transport electrical signals and translate them into biochemical stimuli compatible with nerve cells.
The top layer featured a sensor that can detect pressure over the same range as human skin, from a light finger tap to a firm handshake.
Five years ago, Bao's team members first described how to use plastics and rubbers as pressure sensors by measuring the natural springiness of their molecular structures.
They then increased this natural pressure sensitivity by indenting a waffle pattern into the thin plastic, which further compresses the plastic's molecular springs.
To exploit this pressure-sensing capability electronically, the team scattered billions of carbon nanotubes through the waffled plastic.
Putting pressure on the plastic squeezes the nanotubes closer together and enables them to conduct electricity. This allowed the plastic sensor to mimic human skin, which transmits pressure information to the brain as short pulses of electricity, similar to Morse code.
Increasing pressure on the waffled nanotubes squeezes them even closer together, allowing more electricity to flow through the sensor, and those varied impulses are sent as short pulses to the sensing mechanism.
Remove pressure, and the flow of pulses relaxes, indicating light touch. Remove all pressure and the pulses cease entirely, researchers said.
The 17-person research team then hooked this pressure-sensing mechanism to the second ply of their artificial skin, a flexible electronic circuit that could carry pulses of electricity to nerve cells.
The research was published in the journal Science.