July 10, 2013 at 8:27 PM ET
A new development in nanotechnology may enable "electronic skin" for robots and prosthetic limbs, offering sensitivity not just to pressure, but to humidity and temperature — and it's even flexible.
The new material is developed by chemical engineers at the Israel Institute of Technology, who found that a certain type of gold nanoparticle changed how it conducted electricity based on pressure.
These nanoparticles are only 5-8 nanometers in diameter, comprising a gold core and a spiky, protective outer layer. When sandwiched into a special film, the way that film is bent or pressed may cause the nanoparticles to spread out or bunch together, changing how well electricity passes between them.
What that means is that this film can act as an incredibly thin sensory layer, providing a readout on how much pressure is being put on it, where and at what angle. With a little modification, they can be made to be sensitive to temperature, the presence of liquids and other things ordinary human skin can detect.
"The sensor is very stable and can be attached to any surface shape," Professor Hossam Haick told the American Technion Society. And he writes in the team's paper that it's durable, too: "All flexible sensors exhibited repeatable responses even after a large number of bending cycles."
The ability to sense multiple things, the flexibility, the low-power requirements and other aspects of this nanoparticle film make it one of the best candidates yet with which to create an "electronic skin" that could enable either a robotic limb or a prosthetic one to collect a wide range of sensations.
It'll be some time before the effect of such technology is felt, so to speak, but it's extremely promising nevertheless. Haick's team's findings are presented in their paper, published in June's issue of the journal of the American Chemical Society.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.