Pull skin-like sensor. Watch it bounce back

STANFORD (US) — A transparent sensor that is so stretchy it can be pulled to twice its original length and then bounce back perfectly has potential for use with prosthetic limbs, robotics, and touch-sensitive computer displays.

The skin uses a transparent film of single-walled carbon nanotubes that act as tiny springs, enabling the sensor to accurately measure the force on it, whether it’s being pulled like taffy or squeezed like a sponge.

“This sensor can register pressure ranging from a firm pinch between your thumb and forefinger to twice the pressure exerted by an elephant standing on one foot,” says Darren Lipomi, a postdoctoral researcher the lab of Zhenan Bao, associate professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University. “None of it causes any permanent deformation.”

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Described online in Nature Nanotechnology, the key element of the sensor is the transparent film of carbon “nano-springs,” which is created by spraying nanotubes in a liquid suspension onto a thin layer of silicone, which is then stretched.

When the nanotubes are airbrushed onto the silicone, they tend to land in randomly oriented little clumps. When the silicone is stretched, some of the nano-bundles get pulled into alignment in the direction of the stretching. When the silicone is released, it rebounds back to its original dimensions, but the nanotubes buckle and form little nanostructures that look like springs.

“After we have done this kind of pre-stretching to the nanotubes, they behave like springs and can be stretched again and again, without any permanent change in shape,” Bao says.

Stretching the nanotube-coated silicone a second time, in the direction perpendicular to the first direction, causes some of the other nanotube bundles to align in the second direction. That makes the sensor completely stretchable in all directions, with total rebounding afterward.

Additionally, after the initial stretching to produce the “nano-springs,” repeated stretching below the length of the initial stretch does not change the electrical conductivity significantly, Bao says.

Maintaining the same conductivity in both the stretched and unstretched forms is important because the sensors detect and measure the force being applied to them through the spring-like nanostructures, which serve as electrodes.

The sensors consist of two layers of the nanotube-coated silicone, oriented so that the coatings are face-to-face, with a layer of a more easily deformed type of silicone between them.

The middle layer of silicone stores electrical charge, much like a battery. When pressure is exerted on the sensor, the middle layer of silicone compresses, which alters the amount of electrical charge it can store. That change is detected by the two films of carbon nanotubes, which act like the positive and negative terminals on a typical automobile or flashlight battery.

The change sensed by the nanotube films is what enables the sensor to transmit what it is “feeling.” Whether the sensor is being compressed or extended, the two nanofilms are brought closer together, which seems like it might make it difficult to detect which type of deformation is happening. But it should be possible to detect the difference by the pattern of pressure.

With compression, you would expect to see sort of a bull’s-eye pattern, with the greatest deformation at the center and decreasing deformation as you go farther from the center.

“If the device was gripped by two opposing pincers and stretched, the greatest deformation would be along the straight line between the two pincers,” Lipomi says. Deformation would decrease as you moved farther away from the line.

Bao’s research group previously created a sensor so sensitive it could detect pressures “well below the pressure exerted by a 20 milligram bluebottle fly carcass.” The newest is not quite that sensitive, but that’s because the focus was on making it stretchable and transparent.

“We did not spend very much time trying to optimize the sensitivity aspect on this sensor,” Bao says, “but the previous concept can be applied here. We just need to make some modifications to the surface of the electrode so that we can have that same sensitivity.”

Lipomi and Michael Vosgueritchian, graduate student in chemical engineering, and Benjamin Tee, graduate student in electrical engineering, are the lead authors of the paper.

The U.S. Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Program provided partial funding.

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