Self-healing electronic skin could be the start of a cyborg future

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Researchers have created an electronic skin that is capable of healing itself.
Image: Chuanqian Shi

Science fiction has endlessly grappled with the idea of cyborgs. However, the technology to blend humans and machines simply doesn’t exist—yet. Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder want to change that.

They recently showed off a new “electronic skin” that is capable of healing itself. Interestingly, the device is made of a flexible material that’s designed to stick on top of a person’s natural skin. That makes it theoretically possible to add electronics to any part of the body.

The team’s research was published in the journal Science Advances earlier this month.

Tech Skin

Current methods of adding tech to the body are pretty clunky. Things like smartwatches give users a ton of functionality but (obviously) don’t blend in. Smart rings push the boundaries of what’s possible but even those involve some sort of metal or plastic device that must be worn and recharged.

Wei Zhang, one of the co-authors of the CU Boulder study, says, “Smartwatches are functionally nice, but they’re always a big chunk of metal on a band. If we want a truly wearable device, ideally it will be a thin film that can comfortably fit onto your body.”

That’s what the team is hoping to achieve with its electronic skin. Researchers have been working on it for several years and are now starting to see some promising results.

Essentially, the e-skin consists of liquid metal wires that are situated between layers of polyimine. The material gives the e-skin its flexibility and resilience. If it is cut, the skin can stitch itself back together in a matter of minutes.

Zhang says, “It’s similar to skin healing, but we’re talking about covalent chemical bonds here.”

Real-World Uses

The team’s e-skin is one of many similar creations in a growing segment of the wider electronics industry. A number of companies and researchers believe that flexible circuits that attach to the skin will be the future of wearable technology.

The CU Boulder team envisions that its e-skin could find its first real-world applications in the fitness wearable space. It could perform some of the functions of a smartwatch by monitoring metrics like heart rate and movement. Since the e-skin is layered directly atop the wearer’s skin, it could provide highly accurate measurements.

However, that isn’t the only way the team sees its invention being useful. A University of Colorado article covering the research says, “Picture skin peeling off the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the ‘Terminator’ film franchise.”

Zhang then went on to say, “Our research is kind of going in that direction, but we still have a long way to go.”

In the meantime, the team has a more attainable goal. The researchers believe that smart skin devices that perform the same jobs as something like a smartwatch could help cut back on e-waste. Since the e-skin can be stretched and reconfigured to fit anywhere on the body it takes far less material to produce.

Once a user is done with their e-skin, the polyimine is designed to “melt” when it is dipped into a recycling solution. From there, all of the components can be reused to make a new piece of e-skin.

Co-lead researcher Jianliang Xiao says, “Our solution to electronic waste is to start with how we make the device, not from the end point, or when it’s already been thrown away. We want a device that’s easy to recycle.”

Although it will be many years before the team’s e-skin is ready for consumers, the innovation worth keeping an eye on. There is a lot of potential for a device like this and interest in skin-like wearables will only grow in the years to come.

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