(USA)

The pioneering scientist who famously created a bionic ear in 2013 is now spearheading the development of stretchable electronics using 3D printing technology.

Michael McAlpine, a mechanical engineering associate professor from the University of Minnesota, has produced a type of 3D bionic skin which could give robots the sense of touch and lead to electronics being printed directly on to human skin.

“This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses. Putting this type of ‘bionic skin’ on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during minimally invasive surgeries, which would make surgery easier instead of just using cameras like they do now. These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment,” Michael said.

He continued: “While we haven’t printed on human skin yet, we were able to print on the curved surface of a model hand using our technique. We also interfaced a printed device with the skin and were surprised that the device was so sensitive that it could detect your pulse in real time.”

The bespoke 3D printer was built in-house using inks that could set at room temperature. This is a major breakthrough as typically liquid plastics are too hot or inflexible to be printed on to skin in this way.

Michael explained: “This is a completely new way to approach 3D printing of electronics. We have a multifunctional printer that can print several layers to make these flexible sensory devices. This could take us into so many directions from health monitoring to energy harvesting to chemical sensing.”

And he pointed to the fact it is also good to go now. “With most research, you discover something and then it needs to be scaled up. Sometimes it could be years before it ready for use. This time, the manufacturing is built right into the process so it is ready to go now,” he said. “The possibilities for the future are endless.”

The research will be published in Advanced Materials.