Scientists from the University of California have used nanotechnology to develop an artificial skin that could eventually give the sense of touch back to people who have lost their limbs.
Dubbed the e-skin, it is built from tiny nanowires made out of artificial material and its creators say it mimics the sensitivity of human touch.
Illustration of an artificial e-skin with nanowire active matrix circuitry covering a hand. (Ali Javey and Kuniharu Takei, University of California, Berkeley)
“The basic idea of impregnating a polymer with wires and making a kind of pressure-sensitive film out of it is very big technology,” said Professor Michael Cortie, director of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at Sydney’s University of Technology.
“The various touch-screen consumer devices around show what can be done with various kinds of pressure-sensitive coatings.
“Obviously this is a flexible one, same principle, this coating could be moulded over a hand, I guess.”
Previously, scientists have had to produce artificial skin from organic materials because of their flexibility.
The e-skin is able to maintain flexibility because it uses the microscopic nanowires, and researchers say the use of nanotechnology will also make it cheaper to produce.
Professor Cortie says there is a limitless scope for nanotechnology when it comes to medical science.
“There’s a whole range of stuff from active to passive,” he said.
“So a passive thing, for example, would be a stent – the surface of which has been coated with molecules – they would maybe render it more bio-compatible or even deliver an antibiotic.
“So those are out there in the marketplace. Those are passive.
“Then we go to the active stuff that would actually send an electrical signal into your body, basically to your brain and give you the sensation of hearing, sight, maybe touch, possibly movement.”
But with every breakthrough in medical nanotechnology comes concerns of unforeseen consequences, as expert on nanotechnology regulation Professor Thomas Faunce from the Australian National University explains.
“There’s often a sort of misunderstanding in the popular imagination that nanotechnology is a problem, but it’s not,” he said.
“It really has the capacity to solve a lot of the major public health problems we face.
“Not only does nanotechnology facilitate a whole range of new and valuable medicines, it has the potential to provide us with much more useful solar energy capture and storage devices, with water purification and soil purification mechanisms, better, more resilient building materials.
“So there’s a whole range of applications of nanotechnology that can really help us solve some of the major environmental and public health problems that we currently face.”
Professor Faunce says public concern over nanotechnology is fuelled partly by the novelty of the new discoveries and partly by science.
“That they know there are particular particles that cause problems and to some extent, although not as much, it’s fuelled by the fact that regulation appears to be running to try and catch up with industrial developments,” he said.
“They’ve seen this happen in other areas like genetically modified food and they’re wondering whether it’s the same sort of paradigm playing out.
“And people like me are a bit worried that if this is not addressed properly, then nanotechnology won’t be able to take on its very valuable role of actually helping solve some of the major problems that we have today, like pollution and climate change, water and food security, energy production.”