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Back to One’s Senses: Incheon National University Researches Novel Artificial Skin for Restoring Temperature Sensory Functions

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As the largest “organ” of the human body, the skin is an important interface in our interactions with the world around us. The skin contains a specialized chemical, mechanical, and temperature biosensors that are critical for detecting harmful stimuli. Although the skin is excellent at repairing itself when damaged, acute injury can partially or completely disable its sensory capabilities in the affected area, creating a “blind spot.”

Because current skin repair therapies cannot restore such sensory loss, some researchers have turned to artificial skin as a viable alternative. Flexible artificial skin can accommodate biocompatible electronic devices and sensors to mimic the natural functions of human skin. However, a crippling limitation of these wearable electronics is that they require an external power source such as batteries.

Damage to the skin can permanently eliminate its sensory capabilities. Fortunately, advances in artificial skin and biosensors could help restore these functions so those affected can once again perceive their surroundings as usual. Photo credit: Joondong Kim, Incheon National University

In a recent study led by Professor Joondong Kim of Incheon National University in Korea, a team of researchers has developed an innovative type of artificial skin that incorporates a self-sustaining platform to measure temperature. The biosensor overcomes key limitations of previous approaches and provides realistic temperature measurement capabilities by mimicking the way human skin responds to extreme stimuli. Their work was published online on November 8, 2021, and will appear in Volume 91 of Nano Energy in January 2022.

The proposed artificial skin was made of flexible and transparent thin layers of zinc oxide (ZnO), nickel oxide (NiO), and silver nanowires, which together form a photovoltaic device. In other words, this artificial skin converts ultraviolet light into useful electricity that can be used to power portable electronics in a simple and sustainable way.

The temperature sensing capability of the proposed artificial skin is based on the use of ZnO, which generates an electric current that increases with temperature (pyrocurrent). Remarkably, this sensing platform has inherent memory properties, meaning that the pyrocurrent is amplified more or less depending on how long it was previously exposed to extreme temperatures. In a way, this mimics some of the sensory memory mechanisms that human skin possesses and that our bodies rely on to keep us away from harmful stimuli. “Artificial skin could become an immediate solution for people with damaged skin sensors so that they can once again experience the natural environment around them with ease,” explains Prof. Kim.

These findings will help guide the design of artificial skin and wearable electronics for a variety of applications, as Prof Kim remarks, “Our work paves the way for the combination of biosensing and built-in memory capabilities via a self-powered architecture, which could find uses in artificial thermoreceptor sensors, self-powered e-skin, artificial biomedical sensors, artificial sensing and memory, and thermal memory.” Let us hope more researchers get their skin in the game so that this technology progresses even further!

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