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An electrically conductive hydrogel that takes stretchability, self-healing, and strain sensitivity to new limits outperforms previously reported hydrogels and introduces new functionalities. Smart materials that flex, sense, and stretch like skin have many applications in which they interact with the human body. Possibilities range from biodegradable patches that help wounds heal to wearable electronics and touch-sensitive robotic devices.

This electrically conductive hydrogel can stretch and reshape. It has the skin-like quality of sensitivity to touch. (Credit: Kaust)

The material is a composite of the water-containing hydrogel and a metal-carbide compound known as MXene. As well as being able to stretch by more than 3400 percent, the material can quickly return to its original form and will adhere to many surfaces, including skin. When cut into pieces, it can quickly mend itself upon reattachment.

This new dimension may be crucial in applications that sense changes in the skin and convert them into electronic signals. A thin slab of the material attached to a user's forehead, for example, can distinguish between different facial expressions, such as a smile or a frown. This ability could allow patients with extreme paralysis to control electronic equipment and communicate.

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