A new synthetic skin that can generate its own energy through solar power could lead to new types of prosthetic limbs, a new study in the journal Advanced Functional Materials reports.
Researchers from Glasgow University developed the “electronic skin” by using the new material graphene, which is roughly one million times thinner than paper and stronger than anything else on Earth. Beyond its durability, the material also has an optical transparency that allows roughly 98 percent of the light that hits it to pass through. This makes it a great method for gathering energy from the sun.
In addition, the prototype — like human skin — is capable of making sensitive pressure measurements. This would allow prosthetic limbs to have a much better sense of touch. However, the first models needed a power source to operate the sensors. While scientists first used a battery for the process, the latest editions have built photo-voltaic cells directly into the skin.
“The real challenge was how can we put skin on top of photo-voltaic and yet allow light to pass through the skin?” said Dr. Ravinder Dahiya, a researcher at the University of Glasgow School of Engineering, according to BBC News. “That’s what we have done.”
This allows the skin to generate its own energy, which makes the limb lighter and easier to use. The technology currently needs 20 nanowatts of power per square centimeter. Though it can easily generate more than that, it cannot yet store excess energy. The team is looking to make use of that extra power in the future.
“The next step for us is to further develop the power-generation technology…and use it to power the motors which drive the prosthetic hand itself,” Dahiya added, according to Engadget. “This could allow the creation of an entirely energy-autonomous prosthetic limb.”
The new technology also could increase the functionality of robots by giving them a better understanding of the objects they touch. If robots had sensitive limbs, they may be less likely to make errors.