May 8, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis have developed a silicone pressure sensor that can be 3D printed directly on your hand. In the future, the device could be used to enhance one’s sense of touch.

The dawn of bionic humans may be closer than you think—if researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis are to be believed.

There, materials scientist Michael McAlpine has led a group of researchers in developing a pressure sensor that can be 3D printed directly onto your hand, potentially providing cyborg-level sensing abilities for doctors, soldiers, and even burn victims.

The 3D printed sensor, which is made of a soft, stretchy silicone, has already been tested on an artificial hand, but all signs point to the device being compatible with real human fingertips too. “It sets the stage for future work in 3D printing electronic devices directly on the body,” McAlpine said of the research.

McAlpine and co say that such 3D printed sensors could be used in a wide range of applications, from military operations to surgical procedures. And perhaps most importantly, they could be fabricated without cleanrooms or other expensive gear.

“You can print electronics directly on the body out in the field, using something you carry around in your backpack,” McAlpine said, envisioning a future in which tiny, compact 3D printers are commonplace. “Using only raw materials, you can make basically any type of device—that’s a complete paradigm shift that hasn't been implemented before.”

Being able to print out these sensors whenever required could give humans next-level capabilities even in less-than-ideal circumstances, the researchers say. For example, a soldier in the field could print out a bomb-detecting sensor or medical device to help a wounded comrade, integrating the technology into their own body.

Because these sensors are 3D printed in a stretchy silicone material, futuristic sensor-equipped devices could be applied directly onto skin. This could be achieved by scanning the wearer’s hand to detect contours, identifying where the printing material needs to be placed.

The sensing parts of the device would consist of a coil sandwiched between two flat 4 mm layers of the silicone material. The silicone, which would have to set before use, contains lots of tiny silver particles that allow electricity to flow. The coil contains fewer, but when it is compressed (by pressing with the fingertip) it conducts electricity.

The sensor can figure out how hard you’re pressing by measuring the electrical current passing through, and can even measure a human pulse.

According to the researchers involved, the future possibilties of this technology are seriously exciting. 

McAlpine reckons that a more advanced version of the 3D printed sensor could be printed onto the tips of surgical tools, essentially giving surgeons extended bionic “fingertips” that would give them much greater control during an operation.

An even more advanced system could even provide users with an enhanced sense of touch if hooked up to a neural feedback system. This could potentially help those who have lost their sense of touch through skin damage—burn victims, for example.

These are all interesting uses for the 3D printed silicone device, but there is still some way to go before they can be realized. Fortunately, the researchers are currently working hard to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to the technology: unavoidable movement of the human hand. By augmenting a 3D printer so it can print on a moving surface—no mean feat, of course—the technology would be much more viable, especially in non-laboratory conditions.

Ultimately, McAlpine says, this research could be used to 3D print integrated devices containing multiple sensors, a power source, and other gadgetry.

The research has been published in Advanced Materials.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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