Researchers from the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University, and the University of California Riverside have developed a water-resistant electronic skin capable of sensing touch and healing itself when damaged — thanks to inspiration from a jellyfish.
"One of the challenges with many self-healing materials today is that they are not transparent and they do not work efficiently when wet," says team lead Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee of the challenges faced. "These drawbacks make them less useful for electronic applications such as touchscreens which often need to be used in wet weather conditions.
"With this idea in mind, we began to look at jellyfishes — they are transparent, and able to sense the wet environment. So, we wondered how we could make an artificial material that could mimic the water-resistant nature of jellyfishes and yet also be touch sensitive."
The result is a gel created by mixing a fluorocarbon-based polymer with a fluorine-rich ionic liquid. As the two materials interact, they are capable of self-healing - and work in both wet and dry environments. Better still, the material can be 3D printed and, as its electrical properties change when it's under pressure or strain, can be used as a sensor to boot — or as the basis for a flexible PCB which works underwater.
"We can [...] measure this change," explains Tee, "and convert it into readable electrical signals to create a vast array of different sensor applications. The 3D printability of our material also shows potential in creating fully transparent circuit boards that could be used in robotic applications. We hope that this material can be used to develop various applications in emerging types of soft robots."
Tee is also hoping that the material could help reduce electronic waste, by producing electronics which can self-heal instead of ending up in landfills once damaged, while his team is in the process of developing optoelectronic devices based on the material for new human-machine communication interfaces.
The team's work has been published under open-access terms in the journal Nature Electronics.