e-Skin Could Lead to Better Wearables

Is "Terminator" coming our way?

Key Takeaways

  • A newly invented kind of electronic skin could be used for medical devices and other types of wearables.
  • The new 'skin' is flexible and can heal itself which observers say is a unique and important discovery. 
  • The invention could also be better for the planet as it’s recyclable.
Electronic skin on a person's ankle.
 Chuanqian Shi

A newly developed kind of "electronic skin" could pave the way for medical advances including better ways to monitor the heart, experts say. 

The electronic skin is a stretchy and fully recyclable circuit board that sticks onto human skin, say researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder who recently published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

The device can heal itself, much like real skin. It also senses everything from the body temperature of users to tracking their daily step counts.

"The beauty of this device is that it is so pliable," Hongjun Wang, the chair of the biomedical engineering department at the Stevens Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research, said in a phone interview.

"I think the first application will be stretchable electronics on the skin surface. Eventually, the electronics could be used as implants inside the body and to monitor the heart beating." 

Thin as a Band-Aid

The electronic skin is manufactured using screen printing to create a network of liquid metal wires. The circuits are then put between two thin films made out of a highly flexible and self-healing material.

The device is a little thicker than a Band-Aid and can be applied to skin using just heat. It can also stretch by 60% in any direction without damaging the electronics inside.

"This device can be used for wearable 24/7 health monitoring of subtle physiological signals for patients, such as temperature and ECG," Jianliang Xiao, one of the paper’s co-authors, said in an email interview. "It can be used as a human-computer or human-machine interface. It can also be used as e-skins for robots."

One of the most important aspects of the newly invented electronic skin is its ability to self-heal, Ioannis Kymissis, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, said in an email interview.

A person with a small computer chip on the skin of the wrist.
grinvalds / Getty Images 

"There are some stretchable materials that are used today for this class of wearable systems [e.g. silicones and polyurethane], but the effectively 'living' character of this material is interesting and compelling since it allows for functional reattachment after damage," he added. "There are a few self-healing materials that have been developed, but most require some activation such as heating to reform the connections."

Greener Skin

The new invention could also be better for the planet as it’s recyclable. The components can be recycled by putting them into a special solution that separates the electronics from the component molecules. Both the electronics and the stretchy material can then be reused. 

The electronic skin is one of a growing number of flexible electronics that are being explored by researchers. "Because of their capability to bend, stretch, twist, fit any form factor, and adhere to a wide variety of surfaces, including skin, flexible hybrid electronics [FHE] have a wide variety of applications in fields like aviation, heavy industry, healthcare, automotive, and more," Art Wall, director of fab operations at the research institute NextFlex, said in an email interview.

"The process for making this new type of electronics is quite different and makes use of additive manufacturing. The circuits are actually printed on a variety of low-cost polymer substrates."

Academics have been researching flexible electronics for about a decade and entrepreneurs are now starting to take notice, Heather Benoit, futures and insights lead at M3 Design, said in an email interview. Some similar inventions include conductive textiles or "e-textiles" that can measure pressure, force, and resistance.

Fabrics like these have been used to create products including a sports bra that can measure heart rate and pants that track posture. "A few startups are taking first steps towards commercializing the technology, but it’ll still likely be a few more years before we see any significant market adoption," Benoit added.

Self-healing electronic skin sounds like something out of a Terminator movie. But scientists say this new device could help save lives rather than destroy them.