Thanks, jellyfish, for our new self-healing electronic skin

Researchers have turned towards the jellyfish to create stretchy solutions for device self-healing.

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When you hear of researchers and scientists taking inspiration from the natural world for their inventions, the rather cool and colorful mantis shrimp, the cheetah, or perhaps the octopus may come to mind.

As gelatinous creatures which float around the ocean often associated with nasty -- and sometimes fatal -- stings, the jellyfish might not be inherently associated with a scientist's imagination.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), however, would beg to differ -- as the creature in question is at the heart of the development of a new form of electronic skin.

On Monday, NUS scientists said the skin-like material is transparent, stretchy, touch-sensitive and is able to heal itself in aquatic environments in the same way as the jellyfish. 

The material used to mimic the jellyfish is a fluorocarbon-based polymer gel complete with an ionic liquid containing high levels of fluorine. When combined, the polymers and liquid interact to promote self-healing. 

This not only works in sea water but also acidic or alkaline environments, as well as either wet or dry surroundings.

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NUS Assistant Professor and lead author of the study Benjamin Tee said the challenge was in creating a material with water-resistant properties that was also able to sense touch effectively when wet -- a requirement for mobile device touchscreens, for example.

"One of the challenges with many self-healing materials today is that they are not transparent and they do not work efficiently when wet," Tee said. "These drawbacks make them less useful for electronic applications such as touchscreens which often need to be used in wet weather conditions."

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The electronic skin is directly printed into electronic circuits. The material, being both soft and stretchy, is able to support strain of up to 2000 percent. The electrical properties of the skin change when touched, strained, or pressed and this change can be converted into electrical signals for sensor-based applications.

It may be possible for the material to one day be used in mobile touchscreens, water-resistant electronics, as well as future soft robot designs -- no matter what environment they would be tasked to work in.

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There is also another potential benefit to the electronic skin. It is estimated that 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are created each year, with many electronic products thrown away that are broken and no longer usable. However, if it was possible to give these devices self-healing properties, this could also reduce the number of devices we throw away.

"Millions of tonnes of electronic waste from devices like broken mobile phones, or tablets are generated globally every year," Tee says. "We are hoping to create a future where electronic devices made from intelligent materials can perform self-repair functions to reduce the amount of electronic waste in the world."

The research has been published in the academic journal Nature Electronics

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