March 3, 2011 at 3:08 PM ET
Stretchable and flexible solar cells have been created to power a type of artificial skin sensitive enough to feel a fly land on it and, potentially, detect diseases and toxic chemicals, scientists at Stanford University are reporting.
The team, led by chemical engineer Zhenan Bao, published one of two papers on the artificial skin fashioned out of semiconductors in September 2010. The skin could, for example, allow robots to sense pressure.
One day, it may restore the sense of touch in people with prosthetic limbs. Other potential applications under development include the ability of robots equipped with the skin to detect proteins in human saliva, sweat, or urine that serve as biomarkers of specific diseases.
Regardless of what the artificial skin is detecting, it needs to transmit electronic signals to get its data to the processing center, be it a computer or human brain. That's where the stretchable, flexible solar cells come into play.
The cells have a wavy microstructure that extends like an accordion when stretched. The electrode is made of a liquid metal that conforms to the wavy surface of the device when stretched and relaxed. This allows it to be put on clothing, or even body parts such as the elbow, where movement stretches the fabric and artificial skin.
In addition to skin for robots and prosthetics, the stretchable component of the cells would allow them to bond to curved surfaces without crackling or wrinkling, such as the exteriors of cars, lenses and architectural elements.
A paper describing the solar cells has been accepted for publication in Advanced Materials.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).