Stanford University scientists have developed a synthetic-plastic skin that is not only responsive to temperature and pressure, but — like the real thing — can heal and repair itself when torn or cut.
The development, reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, could revolutionize the development of prosthetics and have wide commercial applications. It might, for instance, be used to provide new coatings for electrical devices and wires that could repair themselves and get electricity flowing again without costly maintenance, particularly in hard-to-reach building walls or vehicles.
Researchers, led by Stanford Chemical Engineering Professor Zhenan Bao, noted the past decade has produced major advances in synthetic skin, but even the most effective self-healing materials had major drawbacks. But the Stanford researchers said they were able to overcome two key hurdles to developing a practical plastic skin that has the self-healing ability of a plastic polymer and the conductivity of a metal.
The skin is a resilient polymer laden with tiny particles of nickel that, at room temperature, feels like saltwater taffy left in the fridge.
Chao Wang, a co-researcher, said the extent of the new material’s self-healing properties came as a surprise to the Stanford team. "Before our work, it was very hard to imagine that this kind of flexible, conductive material could also be self-healing," Wang said.
Researchers said the material is sensitive enough to detect the pressure of a handshake and, as a result, might be ideal for use in prosthetics. Now the team plans to make the material stretchy and transparent, so that it might be suitable for wrapping and overlaying electronic devices or display screens.