Science 4 min read

Fully Recyclable, Self-Healing Electronic Skin Developed

Jianliang Xiao | University of Colorado, Boulder

Jianliang Xiao | University of Colorado, Boulder

In an effort to make environmentally-friendly electronic devices, a group of researchers developed a fully recyclable, self-healing electronic skin.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have created a new kind of malleable electronic skin that can heal itself and be fully recycled. This e-skin will reportedly have broad applications in different science and technology fields like robotics, prosthetic development, and biomedical devices.

“It has been of great interest to the research community to design and fabricate electronic skins (e-skins) with functionalities and mechanical properties comparable to natural skin because of their great potential in robotics, prosthetics, health care, and human-computer interface,” the researchers wrote in their paper published in the journal Science Advances.

To date, several types and sizes of wearable e-skins are being developed by researchers in different labs across the globe. Apparently, the thin, translucent e-skin material can copy the functionality and mechanical properties of human skin. According to experts, this could one day give robots the capacity to feel like humans.

Researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder have reportedly developed a new type of electronic skin that not only heals itself but can also be recycled after being severely damaged. @CUBoulder Click To Tweet

Electronic Skin

Electronic skin dates back to 2011 when researchers from Stanford University first introduced it. However, Jianliang Xiao, the team’s lead researcher, claims that their e-skin could pave the way for safer interactions between robots and humans in the future. The new e-skin is said to have embedded sensors that can sense changes in pressure, temperature, humidity, and air flow.

“Sensing is critical because when human beings interact with robots, we want to make sure that robots don’t hurt people,” Xiao said in a statement to Newsweek. “When the baby is sick, the robot can just use a finger to touch the surface…it can tell what the temperature of the baby is.”

“In that case you would integrate e-skin on the robot fingers that can feel the pressure of the baby. The idea is to try and mimic biological skin with e-skin that has desired functions.” -Wei Zhang

Aside from having sensors, the new e-skin developed by the UC researchers can also be reused, making it more cost-efficient and environment-friendly. It allegedly uses a novel kind of covalently bonded dynamic network polymer called polyimine. This polymer, when severely damaged, can heal itself using a special recycling solution.

Image demonstrating how the new electronic skin can be recycled
Image demonstrating how the new electronic skin can be recycled | Jianliang Xiao via Quartz |

The solution dissolves the matrix into small molecules which allows the nanoparticles to sink to the bottom. After that, the remaining materials can once again be used to create another patch of artificial skin. The recycling process reportedly takes about 30 minutes to be completed at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But, it might take up to 10 hours at room temperature.

The polymer was also laced with nanoparticles to provide better mechanical strength, electrical conductivity, and chemical stability.

“By doping the dynamic covalent thermoset with conductive silver nanoparticles, we demonstrate a robust yet rehealable, fully recyclable, and malleable e-skin,” the researchers wrote.

“The e-skin can be rehealed when it is damaged and can be fully recycled at room temperature, which has rarely, if at all, been demonstrated for e-skin. After rehealing or recycling, the e-skin regains mechanical and electrical properties comparable to the original e-skin.”

The electronic skin is not yet perfect. While it is soft, it is not as stretchable as real human skin. Currently, Xiao said that he and his team are working on making the skin-mimicking electronic device more scalable so it could be easier to manufacture in the future.

Anyone else imagining electronic skin-covered robots that can feel as humans do? Can you think of any applications that haven’t been mentioned?

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Chelle is the Product Management Lead at INK. She's an experienced SEO professional as well as UX researcher and designer. She enjoys traveling and spending time anywhere near the sea with her family and friends.

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