Using an electro-conductive polymer, chemical engineers have created what is being described as a synthetic form of skin that, when injured, heals itself in a matter of seconds. The development is being called a “breakthrough” in the fairly new experimental fields of self-healing compounds and “epidermal electronics”.
Previous work in this latter field involved silicon-based materials which, though electrically conductive — a necessary property of artificial skin — were also quite brittle. No, if artificial tissue was going to substitute for actual skin, then it had to behave like actual skin; it needed to be robust — electrically and mechanically.
Over the past half dozen years or so, significant progress has been made. Chemists have since produced plastics that, when cut, can rejoin themselves. Then, in 2008, a group of French engineers (the ESPCI group) designed a rubber compound that could restore its mechanical properties after repeated structural insults, including breaking.
Despite these achievements, however, the materials had low electrical conductance, making them less than ideal for their intended use as sensor material for prosthetics.
But now, engineers at Standford University (Bao et al) have effectively combined these two desired properties to advance the science substantially. The team was able to increase both the self-healing and electrical conducting properties of their new material by incorporating nickel atoms into the polymer which allows electrons to continuously jump between the metal atoms embedded in the polymer.