University of Connecticut (UConn) scientists say a new type of sensor could lead to artificial skin that someday may help burn victims “feel” again. They described their research (“An Ultra-Shapeable, Smart Sensing Platform Based on a Multimodal Ferrofluid-Infused Surface”) in Advanced Materials.

“The development of wearable, all‐in‐one sensors that can simultaneously monitor several hazard conditions in a real‐time fashion imposes the emergent requirement for a smart and stretchable hazard avoidance sensing platform that is stretchable and skin‐like. Multifunctional sensors with these features are problematic and challenging to accomplish. In this context, a multimodal ferrofluid-based triboelectric nanogenerator (FO-TENG), featuring sensing capabilities to a variety of hazard stimulus such as a strong magnetic field, noise level, and falling or drowning is reported,” wrote the investigators.

“The FO-TENG consists of a deformable elastomer tube filled with a ferrofluid, as a triboelectric layer, surrounded by a patterned copper wire, as an electrode, endowing the FO-TENG with excellent waterproof ability, conformability, and stretchability (up to 300%). In addition, the FO-TENG is highly flexible and sustains structural integrity and detection capability under repetitive deformations, including bending and twisting. This FO-TENG represents a smart multifaceted sensing platform that has a unique capacity in diverse applications including hazard preventive wearables, and remote healthcare monitoring.”

The skin’s ability to perceive pressure, heat, cold, and vibration is a critical safety function that most people take for granted. But burn victims, those with prosthetic limbs, and others who have lost skin sensitivity for one reason or another, can’t take it for granted, and often injure themselves unintentionally.

Chemist Islam Mosa, PhD, from UConn, and colleagues wanted to create a sensor that can mimic the sensing properties of skin. Such a sensor would need to be able to detect pressure, temperature, and vibration. But perhaps it could do other things too, the researchers thought.

“It would be very cool if it had abilities human skin does not; for example, the ability to detect magnetic fields, sound waves, and abnormal behaviors,” said Mosa.

The team created such a sensor with a silicone tube wrapped in a copper wire and filled with a special fluid made of tiny particles of iron oxide just one billionth of a meter long, called nanoparticles. The nanoparticles rub around the inside of the silicone tube and create an electric current. The copper wire surrounding the silicone tube picks up the current as a signal. When this tube is bumped by something experiencing pressure, the nanoparticles move and the electric signal changes. Sound waves also create waves in the nanoparticle fluid, and the electric signal changes in a different way than when the tube is bumped.

The researchers found that magnetic fields alter the signal too, in a way distinct from pressure or sound waves. Even a person moving around while carrying the sensor changes the electrical current, and the team found they could distinguish between the electrical signals caused by walking, running, jumping, and swimming.

Mosa and his collaborators hope their sensor can act as an early warning for workers exposed to dangerously high magnetic fields. Because the rubber exterior is completely sealed and waterproof, it could also serve as a wearable monitor to alert parents if their child fell into deep water in a pool, for example.

“The inspiration was to make something durable that would last for a very long time, and could detect multiple hazards,” Mosa said. The team has yet to test the sensor for its response to heat and cold, but they suspect it will work for those as well. The next step is to make the sensor in a flat configuration, more like skin, and see if it still works.

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