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 Stanford's touch-sensitive plastic skin heals itself

This story is from the category Sensors
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Date posted: 12/11/2012

Nobody knows the remarkable properties of human skin like the researchers struggling to emulate it. Not only is our skin sensitive – sending the brain precise information about pressure and temperature – but it also heals efficiently to preserve a protective barrier against the world. Combining these two features in a single synthetic material presented an exciting challenge for Stanford chemical engineering Professor Zhenan Bao and her team.

Now, they have succeeded in making the first material that can both sense subtle pressure and heal itself when torn or cut. Their findings will be published Nov. 11 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

In the last decade, there have been major advances in synthetic skin, said Bao, the study's principal investigator, but even the most effective self-healing materials had major drawbacks. Some had to be exposed to high temperatures, making them impractical for day-to-day use. Others could heal at room temperature, but repairing a cut changed their mechanical or chemical structure, so they could heal themselves only once. Most important, no self-healing material was a good bulk conductor of electricity, a crucial property.

"To interface this kind of material with the digital world, ideally you want it to be conductive," said Benjamin Chee-Keong Tee, a researcher on the project.

The researchers succeeded by combining two ingredients to get what Bao calls "the best of both worlds" – the self-healing ability of a plastic polymer and the conductivity of a metal.

They started with a plastic consisting of long chains of molecules joined by hydrogen bonds – the relatively weak attractions between the positively charged region of one atom and the negatively charged region of the next.

"These dynamic bonds allow the material to self-heal," said Chao Wang, another member of the research team. The molecules easily break apart, but then when they reconnect, the bonds reorganize themselves and restore the structure of the material after it gets damaged, he said. The result is a bendable material, which even at room temperature feels a bit like saltwater taffy left in the fridge.

To this resilient polymer, the researchers added tiny particles of nickel, which increased its mechanical strength. The nanoscale surfaces of the nickel particles are rough, which proved important in making the material conductive. Tee compared these surface features to "mini-machetes," with each jutting edge concentrating an electrical field and making it easier for current to flow from one particle to the next.

The result was a polymer with uncommon characteristics. "Most plastics are good insulators, but this is an excellent conductor," Bao said.

See the full Story via external site: news.stanford.edu



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