Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Boulder, CO, United States (4E) – A new type of “electronic skin” that’s malleable, self-healing and fully recyclable has been developed by University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) researchers.
This electronic skin — known as e-skin — has applications ranging from robotics and prosthetic development to better biomedical devices. It’s a thin, translucent material that can mimic the function and mechanical properties of human skin.
The new CU Boulder e-skin has sensors embedded to measure pressure, temperature, humidity and air flow. It has several distinctive properties, including a novel type of covalently bonded dynamic network polymer, known as polyimine that’s been laced with silver nanoparticles to provide better mechanical strength, chemical stability and electrical conductivity.
“What is unique here is that the chemical bonding of polyimine we use allows the e-skin to be both self-healing and fully recyclable at room temperature,” said Assistant Professor Jianliang Xiao, who leads the research effort.
“Given the millions of tons of electronic waste generated worldwide every year, the recyclability of our e-skin makes good economic and environmental sense.”
The healing of cut or broken e-skin, including the sensors, is done by using a mix of three commercially available compounds in ethanol. Another benefit of the new CU Boulder e-skin is that it can be easily conformed to curved surfaces like human arms and robotic hands by applying moderate heat and pressure to it without introducing excessive stresses.
To recycle the skin, the device is soaked into recycling solution, making the polymers degrade into oligomers (polymers with polymerization degree usually below 10) and monomers (small molecules that can be joined together into polymers) that are soluble in ethanol. The silver nanoparticles sink to the bottom of the solution.
“The recycled solution and nanoparticles can then be used to make new, functional e-skin,” said Xiao.
A paper on the subject was published in the journal Science Advances. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.
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