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Toss a newly developed electronic patch into the air, and it will float softly to the ground like a feather. Crumple it into a ball and it will unfold undamaged.
The patch, detailed in a paper published today in Nature (subscription required), is thinner than a human hair and can be placed directly on the skin. It can be stretched to more than two times its normal size and is nearly unbreakable. It is also made on a sheet of inexpensive plastic. The patch could be worn by a medical patient or an athlete as an unobtrusive way to monitor health. Because it is waterproof, it could even be placed in a wearer’s mouth or used while swimming.
The team of researchers, which is based out of the University of Tokyo, noted in their paper that the patch could add sensitive skin to a robot or prosthetic limb. In order for robots to be compatible with humans in everyday life, they will have to have a soft sense of touch that makes them safe and pleasant to be around. Researchers at University of California-Berkeley recently developed a more interactive plastic patch that could be added to a robot, but it was much thicker.
Wearable electronic patches are developed fairly regularly, with applications like sensing exertion and even acting as a password. But in general, after electronics hit a certain thinness, common manufacturing techniques stop working.
The team used an alternative way to deposit the electronic components onto a thin film that allows them to add transistors at room temperature, which is impossible with traditional semiconductors like silicon. However, the finished circuits are slower.
The patch can only be unobtrusive if it doesn’t need other bulky equipment. Next, the researchers will concentrate on giving it the ability to recharge and transfer data wirelessly, which is obviously pretty important for this type of device.