A team of University of Connecticut chemists, working alongside engineers from the University of Toronto in Canada, is creating a wearable sensor with multiple applications, from replicating human skin to harvesting energy.
Islam Mosa was the leading author of the UConn team, with Professor James Rusling supervising. The authors of the paper included Abdelsalam Ahmed from the University of Toronto, Esraa Elsanadidy and Mohamed Sharafeldin from UConn, Islam Hassan from McMaster University, and Professor Shenqiang Ren from State University of New York at Buffalo.
The article detailing their research, titled “An Ultra‐Shapeable, Smart Sensing Platform Based on a Multimodal Ferrofluid‐Infused Surface,” was published in the Journal of Advanced Materials on Monday.
Mosa said one of the team’s goals is to bring back feeling for individuals with prosthetics.
“To do that, we need to have a material that can produce an electrical signal that responds to different stimulus,” Mosa said. “And this electrical signal can go through the nerves...and they can feel it in their brain.”
The project only started a year ago, Mosa said, during a conversation with Abdelsalam Ahmed from Toronto. Mosa stressed that the project is still in the research stage, and there is nothing on the market yet.
The current version of the sensor is a silicone tube filled with liquid, which is flexible and shapeable, but Mosa said this tube shape is merely a prototype. The goal is to make the sensors flat- more like skin.
“But we wanted to go beyond the human skin,” Mosa said.
The liquid inside these silicone sensors is called ferrofluid, an invention of NASA. The liquid is filled with magnetic nanoparticles, Mosa explained.
“When you touch [the sensors], the ferrofluids move inside, and the motion of the ferrofluids within the tube generates an electrical current,” Mosa said.
Different stimuli generate different movements and responses, Mosa said. There is a processor in the device that reads each signal and identifies the stimulus.
“For now, it can identify any physical touch, any mechanical pressure,” Mosa said. “Also, it can identify magnetic fields, sound waves.”
At the moment, temperature has not been tested on the sensors, Mosa said. But the sensors are already capable of sensing more than human skin.
“When you expose the device to sound waves, it generates a very tiny electrical signal which we can harvest, [and that] we can read,” Mosa said. “So basically, the skin can hear.”
Mosa said the original idea behind the sensors was not actually to create skin at all.
“What we targeted this [for] is people who are working in an environment that could be exposed to magnetic fields in a way that could actually be harmful,” he said.
Wearable devices made with these sensors could emit a wireless signal to a cell phone to buzz and give the user a warning that they are in a dangerous situation, Mosa said. But the team’s ideas for practical applications do not end there.
“We were thinking that it would be cool [if] something can trigger a signal to a cell phone buzz that your child is in danger [of drowning],” Mosa said.
The device is waterproof, and the processor is capable of distinguishing between the regular movement of a normal swimmer and the irregular movement of a distressed individual, Mosa said.
“This technology will be a part of our upcoming startup. We have a company coming from the department of chemistry in collaboration with Toronto...named Biocap-Harvest,” he said.
The artificial skin sensors are just harvesting electrical currents, not storing that energy, but this sensor technology could be used in other ways, Mosa said. The startup will work to develop both energy harvesting and energy storage devices.
If implantable devices, such as pacemakers, were manufactured with sensors designed to store energy from harvested electrical currents, they could power themselves, Mosa said. The only roadblock now is getting funding.
“When we’re talking about getting into the biological world...it would take significant funding,” Mosa said.
With all of the work the team has accomplished in the past year, Mosa said he has high hopes for their future work.
“We kept thinking about...how could we best benefit humans, and we ended up having this version of our vision,” Mosa said.
Natalie Baliker is a campus correspondent for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Natalie.Baliker@uconn.edu.