Give me some (solar-powered) skin

May 5, 2017

Solar technology has powered a breakthrough in health roboticsMaterial related to the stuff in your pencil could soon be used to create artificial skin. Sound futuristic? Get this—it’ll also use solar technology. We’re talking major scientific breakthrough.

According to this Engadget article, scientists at Glasgow University are just starting to use graphene (a very close cousin to graphite) to fabricate skin that's more sensitive than the real stuff.

What exactly is graphene? It’s essentially an extremely thin and flexible layer of graphite—with some ingenious finagling at the molecular level. But unlike graphite, it also happens to be one of the strongest materials in existence—harder than diamonds and hundreds of times stronger than steel. 

Researchers in Scotland are using a single atomic layer of this graphene to fashion prosthetics with an artificial epidermis, or outer layer of skin. The whole unit functions as its own sophisticated touch sensor. And it’s not battery-powered, like some of the ultra-sophisticated prosthetics. Instead, they’ve cleverly placed a solar panel under the graphene layer.

This development could be a game-changer for amputees and those who desire a more realistic prosthesis. Dr. Ravinder Dahiya, the lead researcher, has even begun developing 3D printed hands to help reduce costs. Using solar technology in place of batteries, the prosthetics could cost about $350—versus tens of thousands of dollars for similarly higher-end models. 

Plus, this breakthrough in health robotics is opening a door into a world of intriguing possibilities for solar technology. It could, for example, eventually be used to power devices like glucose monitors, allowing doctors to observe patients who have no access to electricity. 

And that’s just the beginning:

The next step…is to further develop the power-generation technology...and use it to power the motors which drive the prosthetic hand itself.” - Dr. Dahiya

The future is looking brighter for amputees, thanks to solar cells and science. It’s only a matter of time before the most advanced prosthetics are completely energy-autonomous.


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