Elisabeth Mahase

A plastic skin that sends a Morse Code-like electrical signal to your brain when it feels pressure may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but yesterday Zhenan Boa, a professor at Stanford, made it a reality.

ZHENAN BAO, PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING AND, BY COURTESY, OF MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AND OF CHEMISTRY

Bao, a chemical engineer, has been trying to develop the material for a decade, leading her team of 17 to this breakthrough which was reported yesterday in Science.

"This is the first time a flexible, skin-like material has been able to detect pressure and also transmit a signal to a component of the nervous system," said Bao.

So how does it work?

The foundation of the skin is in two layers of plastic: the top layer creates a sensing mechanism and the bottom layer acts as the circuit, transporting electrical signals and translating them into biochemical stimuli, compatible with human nerve cells.

The top layer also features a sensor that detects pressure in a similar way to human skin, from a light finger tap to a firm handshake.

What’s next?

Bao's team are not stopping there. They want to develop different sensors to enable the wearer to be able to distinguish corduroy from silk, or a cold glass of water from a hot cup of tea.

In order to do this, they will need to understand and mimic the other 5 out of 6 types of biological sensing mechanism found in the human hand. This breakthrough describes just 1 of these 6.

"We have a lot of work to take this from experimental to practical applications," Bao said. "But after spending many years in this work, I now see a clear path where we can take our artificial skin."