Scientists have taken inspiration from underwater invertebrates like jellyfish to create an electronic skin with similar functionality. Like a jellyfish, the electronic skin is transparent, stretchable, touch-sensitive, and self-healing in aquatic environments.

The new material overcomes key obstacles that self-healing electronic skins have yet to overcome — they are not transparent and do not work efficiently when wet. These drawbacks make them less useful for electronic applications such as touchscreens, which often need to be used in wet weather conditions. Researchers looked to make an artificial material that could mimic the transparency and water-resistant nature of jellyfish and yet also be touch-sensitive.

The new gel consists of a fluorocarbon-based polymer with a fluorine-rich ionic liquid. When combined, the polymer network interacts with the ionic liquid via highly reversible ion-dipole interactions, which allows it to self-heal. Most conductive polymer gels such as hydrogels swell when submerged in water or dry out over time in air. The new gel can retain its shape in both wet and dry surroundings including sea water and acidic or alkaline environments.

The electronic skin is created by printing the novel material into electronic circuits.

As a soft and stretchable material, its electrical properties change when touched, pressed, or strained. The change is measured and converted into readable electrical signals to create a vast array of different sensor applications.

The 3D-printability of the material also shows potential in creating fully transparent circuit boards that could be used in robotic applications. Soft robots, and soft electronics in general, aim to mimic biological tissues to make them more mechanically compliant for human-machine interactions. In addition to conventional soft robot applications, this novel material’s waterproof technology enables the design of amphibious robots and water-resistant electronics.

One further advantage of this self-healing electronic skin is the potential it has to reduce waste. Millions of tons of electronic waste from devices like broken mobile phones or tablets are generated globally every year. Electronic devices made from intelligent materials can perform self-repair functions to reduce the amount of electronic waste.

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This article first appeared in the May, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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