How could electronic skin change your life?

In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in research on electronic skin or e-skin.

Sick of having to plug in your wearables every other day? Well, this could be the beginning to the end of that. We are talking about a world where your devices do not interfere with your life, yet monitor your health- devices that power off your sweat. Sounds too good to be true? Well, scientists believe they may be on the right track.

Meet John Rogers, a scientist at Northwestern University, Illinois, leading the development of soft, flexible, skin-like material catered towards health monitoring applications. His team has invented a piece of polymer designed to reside in your throat while monitoring your dialogue, breathing, and other vitals in real-time.

Although their work was primarily aimed at individuals who have had a stroke and require speech therapy, doctors believe that this device could indicate the symptoms of the coronavirus, with volunteers and clinics already on board, helping monitor vitals in premature infants and hydration in athletes.

This ‘wear it and forget it’ e-skin technology can trace its origins in components found in e-book readers and curved televisions. Silicon, organic bases and inorganic bases are chosen based on the use case. While Silicon is suitable for small-area high-performance applications, organic electronics are preferred for their lower cost, when the requirement for performance is moderate, and a disposable application is desirable.

However, Madhu Bhaskaran, a researcher from RMIT University, Melbourne, favors the inorganic approach. Oxides of strontium, vanadium, titanium, and such metals are her team’s material of choice to develop pain-sensing artificial skins. These oxide coatings are combined with stretchy rubbers to create a stretchable electronic material. A flexible gold-PDMS sensor is included in conjunction with a vanadium oxide temperature sensor and a strontium oxide-based component that keeps track of the electrical charge flowing through it, enabling the material to mimic the skin’s response to heat, pain, and pressure.

While this may sound complex, these tactile sensors essentially measure the pressure applied against the skin and help sense a variety of pathogens and hazardous substances, which in turn, promise quicker diagnosis and earlier treatment.

The most convenient development, however, seems to be the use of biofilm to produce electricity from sweat. This concept relies on the hydrovoltaic effect and promises power for 18 hours on sweaty skin.

Electronic skin appears to have more real use than sheer novelty. With these ideas developing at a rate of knots, we could soon find them in our lives seamlessly. Perhaps this is the end of traditional sockets to charge wearables.